The opening of the Rhode Island theater season reminds me, just a bit, of the upcoming presidential primaries. I wonder: Who will be first? How will they do? What, if any, impact will the early season productions have on the productions six months hence?
On Monday, September 10th, some of those questions were answered when The Elephant Man opened at The Gamm. The Gamm's Artistic Director, Tony Estrella finessed performances out of his company that set the bar high for our other local theaters.
The Elephant Man, by Bernard Pomerance is a play based on the life of Joseph Carey (John) Merrick. Merrick was born in 1862 with a condition that disfigured his skin and bones. At a young age he was sent to a workhouse, where at age 21 he escaped to work in a freak show. Merrick was "discovered" by Fredrick Treves who treated and cared for him at London Hospital until his death by accidental asphyxiation at age 28. The play begins, essentially, at the meeting of Treves and Merrick and ends at Merrick's death.
The Elephant Man originally opened on Broadway, to critical and financial success, in 1979 and ran for more than 900 performances. Philip Anglim originated the title role, which was later played by Bruce Davison, David Bowie and Mark Hamill. In 2002, there was a limited-run Broadway revival with Billy Crudup in the title role.
In The Gamm's production, local actor and Big Apple Circus clown, Ben Johnson conveys the physicality of John Merrick during a tremendous performance. Johnson's representation is clearly more from the inside of the character: the experience of being John Merrick, than from the outside: what it was like to look upon John Merrick. Early in the production Johnson becomes Merrick, by contorting his body in a grotesque but beautifully choreographed moment. Johnson has the ability, which he has displayed in previous Gamm productions, to make the audience care about the character he plays.
Steve Kidd plays Frederick Treves. While not the title character, Treves' character is on stage nearly as much as Merrick's. Kidd has an intimate grasp on his character, and his portrayal feels completely authentic. Ambition, ego, compassion and a strict adherence to the rules of polite society are constant themes in Treves' character.
As Gomm, The London Hospital administator who benefits from donations sent to Merrick, Scott Winters plays the anti-hero. He successfully pulls back from the "villain" stereotype, but is the least likeable person on stage. Winter's accent is thin and reedy, the most akin to the Queen's English. His speech patterns and accent, as are the entire company's, is terrific. The production's dialect coach, Wendy Overly, brings forward at least three, distinct, English accents.
The supporting cast members each give fine performances. Alan F. Hawkridge does double-duty as Ross, Merrick's freak show "Manager" and as the Bishop. Wendy Overly and Karen Carpenter zip from role to role, eight between them, each distinct and well acted. Tom Gleadow plays his supporting roles with ease.
Jeanine Kane plays one of the pinhead duo and Mrs. Kendal. As Mrs. Kendal, Kane shines, giving the role the right amount of humor and turns in an understated and beautiful performance.
Each of the, nearly two-dozen acts is cleverly titled and conveyed to the audience. The production is mounted without intermission, which adds to the intensity. The constant re-setting of the stage became a bit distracting. I think that less staging would be more effective. The audience accepts Johnson, who is handsome by any definition, as the Elephant Man and lets itself be transported to Victorian England. It follows that they could "see" a bedroom without a bed or carnival without an entire wall filled with fun house mirrors. In that vein, the "Everyone sees themselves in Merrick" metaphor is a bit overplayed with the mirrors. These are minor distractions, in what is otherwise a tremendous production.
The Elephant Man at The Gamm in Pawtucket, RI runs through October 7th. Tickets are $20-$34 and can be purchased by calling the 401-723-4266 or online at www.arttixri.com. For more information visit www.gammtheatre.org
Photo: Ben Johnson as John Merrick, The Elephant Man by Peter Goldberg.