John Merrick had a terrible disease (never correctly diagnosed, but now considered "Proteus syndrome") that so disfigured him, he was known as the "Elephant Man" to the society that first abused and then protected him. Victorian England could be incredibly perverse in a way we scarcely can comprehend. Victorianism brought many good changes, but it ignored so much evil, we have come to think of it as the epitome of sexual repression and hypocrisy run amok.

Fair or not, playwright Bernard Pomerance builds on that contemporary assessment of Victorian England to tell his own peculiar version of John Merrick's story. Though I have serious reservations about the play itself, Industrial Arts Theatre offers a borderline-brilliant production of The Elephant Man that is at once inventive, moving and honest. Merrick has been displayed as a sideshow freak when an eminent doctor, Sir Frederick Treves, discovers him, then examines him in a hospital. Merrick's manager, Ross, takes him to Europe, where he rejects, beats and finally abandons the poor man. Once more in England, Merrick's ugliness is confused with evil, and he is nearly torn to shreds by an angry mob. The police find Dr. Treves's card in his pocket and return him to the hospital, where he finds a haven for the rest of his life. Knowing Merrick is dying, the doctor tries to give him as normal a life as possible, introducing him to a famous actress and bringing celebrities to meet him. The moral problem of the play revolves around the doctor's motives--his arrogance, self-questioning and angst.

The play is well written, complex, and dark as a bat cave at midnight. It proposes a world in which everyone feeds off of everyone else--a situation the playwright clearly despises and cannot accept. The "j'accuse" approach he takes (including the audience in his indictment of exploitation) is a tad baffling, since he seems to despair of genuine goodness as much as he objects to human weakness. Pomerance appears to be confused by mixed motives, and makes the mistake of the chronically disillusioned by assuming that the bad element is more "real" than the good element in the mix. But then, life is so often a confusing mess--too often a nightmare in the midst of waking dreams. At least the playwright is trying to make sense of the predicament in which he finds himself. He just hasn't the guts to get anywhere past his own turmoil. Industrial Arts, under the direction of James B. Nicola, ekes out as much humanity as is humanly possible from Pomerance's chill vision. It is an actor's dream, because a gamut of emotions runs beneath the surface. Nicola's sterling direction choreographs stage movement like an elaborate dance, and the "chorus," dressed in black, weaves in and out of character with perfect grace as the play unfolds.

Christopher Leo as John Merrick begins as a da Vinci man, slowly twisting his body into the semblance of deformity as Dr. Treves explains his disease to assembled doctors. Leo projects wisdom and sensitivity, investing Merrick with layers of feeling and evolving understanding. Erik Tieze labors hard to make Dr. Treves comprehensible as medical arrogance gives way to guilt, then anguish, when the doctor begins to question the meaning of normalcy. But as good as this performance is, Tieze can't quite animate the character, who remains mysteriously flat as a human being.

Mary Guzzy-Siegel gives one of the best performances as the glamorous Mrs. Kendal, waltzing in on Merrick's life as if she owned the place, then actually responding to his sensitive intelligence with an intelligence of her own. Fine-tuned and bright in a dark evening. Joey Wishnia as Merrick's manager is excellent--and as cheerful a cynic as I have ever seen. Wishnia also plays Bishop How, spiritual advisor to Merrick. Although the performance is quite respectable in its way, Wishnia goes for the obvious cliche, making the minister a happy boob rather than a sensible sort. There is nothing in the play's dialogue to suggest that this minister is a boob, and it would have been more interesting to defy the convention, giving the doctor a real foil.

This is a sharp production of a blurred vision. David Lynch's film illumined Merrick's life and dealt more profoundly with Treves's mixed motives. It is a more compassionate view of the period.

The Elephant Man, through March 13 at the Loft Theatre, 120 West 1st Avenue, 744-3245.

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