The Elephant Manby Bernard Pomerance. Directed by Scott Ellis.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Do you know what happens when dreams can’t get out?"
What moves us most about, or in a, tragedy is the un-utterable loss we feel at being deprived of something inherently human. It is the feeling of being robbed of dignity, of losing something so dear we never recognized as holding that quality. At age 58, for example, the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay died suddenly and we never knew what poetry still resonated in her head and her heart. The loss of the work was as difficult and unyielding as the loss of the woman. It is the same with John Merrick, the famous Elephant Man of Victorian England. His death was a shattering tragedy, not because of his work or his influence or his nature. It was because at that point where he finally had found a place in the world where connection and responsibility were mingling with respect and intellectual exchange, he died mercilessly alone, un-cared for in those final moments, ignored and as badly off as though nothing good had ever happened to him at all.
In the current production of Bernard Pomerance’s play about Merrick, "The Elephant Man" which is playing on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, we witness the rise and fall of Merrick and we are even there at his death. Somehow, though, the pathos and the tragic elements are not achieved in this fine presentation and I’m not sure why that should be so. It is there in the fine acting of Bradley Cooper as Merrick. I think it is also there in the writing for I have been moved in the past, in the original 1979 Broadway edition with Philip Anglim that ran for two years; even in the short run revival (two months) with Billy Crudup in 2002. So why is this edition different at the end? That is the hard-to-resolve problem for me.
Perhaps it is the accidental distancing I felt as the actors struggled to make their voices carry the angular and often hard to hear accents they’ve adopted. Perhaps it is the various confrontational moments in the play when the actors turn to face the audience and rant on about small subjects or large ones. None of this is new, though, in this show. Maybe it is something that the director, Scott Ellis, either did or did not achieve in the brief period of time in which this show rehearsed and maybe in the playing of the play time will fix the little things that keep that final moment from being all that it should be. I hope so, for some really fine work is being delivered to the Williamstown audiences who attend this play.
Best in the cast is Bradley Cooper as John Merrick. Cooper’s early transition from human subject into the distorted Merrick was exquisitely rendered and for the balance of the play his look and movement so clearly reflected this distorted man. His voice, also distorted, was a deeply resonating, slightly effeminate man’s voice with little authority except that the words themselves demanded a careful hearing and intense respect. Cooper, from his first appearance as the man within (read that how you will), stayed completely in character and was totally believable.
His equal in every moment on stage was Patricia Clarkson as Mrs. Kendall, the actress hired to become his friend. Kendall exceeds expectations and truly befriends the helpless man and Clarkson makes the transition into something beautiful to behold. Her lightly used British accent, more theatrical than real, worked perfectly for her voice and her character. Physically she is a mesmerizing woman and her talent shines out in every gesture and every alteration of tone. If Merrick didn’t desire her version of Kendall than he was much less a man than we are led to believe. Clarkson gives the performance of the year at Williamstown as she bares her soul and her breasts in equal measure.
Frederick Treves, the doctor responsible for saving Merrick from mere exploitation by a carnival barker, was played by Alessandro Nivola whose work is excellent but a bit cold. His Treves maintains a professional chill, never aroused to anger or rage at the mis-treatment of John Merrick - a choice which sabotages the playwright’s intent for him to be volatile enough to refuse to understand Mrs. Kendall’s actions, choices he himself has inspired. Without that part of his character exposed we are less affected by Merrick’s death, for it is Treves’ indifference to the event he knows will occur that robs the audience of the ultimate tragic loss. This sort of portrayal sometimes fall to the intent and vision of the director, but the actor must accept the blame here for the rest of the production moves along perfectly.
The London Hospital administrator, Carr Gomm, is played nicely and with a certain cool air by Henry Stram. Perhaps a bit too dry in delivery, Stram still manages to present a well-rounded napkin ring clustered performance. Scott Lowell delivers soundly as Snork, the orderly who keeps Merrick entertained when no one else is around. Lowell exudes a natural warmth that works perfectly with this imperfect character.
The ensemble all play their various roles well and should be commended for enabling the director to populate London, the hospital, railway station and the carny where Merrick is seen and taunted.
The physical production works exceedingly well. Kudos for simplicity to Timothy R. Mackabee for his sets, for efficient beauty to Clint Ramos for his costumes and simply to Philip S. Rosenberg for his effective indoor/outdoor/indoor lighting. Director Ellis has had less to do with so much help from his artistic staff. What is left to him comes down to decisions and I think he went the right way with his physical work always and only partially all right with his psychological decisions about who does what, when and where. I felt he missed the mark on several occasions here: Treves’ rage at his patient and his fury at friends being spied on by orderlies, for example. I think his lack of physical threat upon discovering an investment fraud that takes most of Treves’ personal life was a missed opportunity for us to extend ourselves into the heart of the protagonist. Ellis has so many moments in this play that open up Treves and make Merrick as likeable as your kind old uncle who grows a money tree in his yard.
For summer fare this edition of "The Elephant Man" is a perfect delight. At the end of it you feel a twinge of regret that the sucker you’re sucking on wasn’t a bit larger, or a different flavor or more beautiful to watch. Still, you come away with a strong desire to discuss what you learned, what you heard and saw, and that is at the base of great theater, even when its resolution is only very good theater.
The Elephant Man plays through August 5 on the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Nikos Stage in the ‘62 Centre for Theatre and Dance, located at 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-597-3400 or go to their website at www.wtfestival.org.