Reflections on ‘The Elephant Man’ at MVT
Scott Robertson is a guest staff reviewer for Hitting The Stage. He has appeared as an actor on many of Hawai‘i’s stages
Most of us know the story of Joseph Merrick (John Merrick in the play), a severely deformed man plucked from a Victorian-era freak show by a surgeon who subsequently cares for him and brings him into high society. The story of the Elephant Man, as Mr. Merrick was called in the freak show and by the press throughout his life, is told through a series of discrete scenes that take us from his discovery by the doctor, through his rescue, rehabilitation and blossoming, and finally to his death. Each scene provides not only a progression in the narrative, but also a new facet for reflection on what it means to be human, to have faith and to doubt, to see and perhaps understand another, to trust, to love. At MVT, some of Hawaii’s finest actors come together to tell this story.
MVT’s production of The Elephant Man is staged using three enormous stairway-to-heaven set pieces that are quickly reconfigured for each scene. When I say enormous, I am not kidding. The stage area has been taken down to the floor, and when they are standing at the top of the steps the actors can touch the ceiling of the theatre. The action takes place up and down the steps and platforms and around and through the spaces between them. I call out the set design early because it is so overwhelming that it almost creates its own show. With fog, lighting and projection, the gray monoliths transform easily, if quite abstractly, to create a London street, a fairground, a train station, and a hospital. Even though this is Victorian London, there are almost no props – no red chairs, billowing curtains, shining tableware etc. With only bare steps and platforms looming everywhere, the audience is forced to watch the actors intensely and listen to their words carefully. Set Designer DeAnne Kennedy and Lighting Designer Christina Sutrov have created a versatile background that highlights the actors and focuses the audience. A beautiful period-appropriate score also flows through much of the show thanks to Sound Designer Toby Carvahlo and Musical Director Ike Webster.
If you are worried that you will not get a taste of the Victorian period, just wait until you see the costumes. They are spectacular! Costume Designer James Corry in his MVT debut had me searching under my seat for the “Wow” emoji sign. In a Beckett-esque opening in which the entire cast comes out to take their seats as an audience looking back at us, we get to see the whole costume parade (I realize I was supposed to be having deeper thoughts). Throughout the show, this magnificent clothing provides us with a sense of the era and drops spots of intense color and texture into the otherwise gray surrounds.
John Merrick is an actor’s dream role, famously attracting celebrities like David Bowie, Bradley Cooper, Bruce Davison, and Mark Hamill. Paul Mitri takes on the Elephant Man here, and his performance is top notch. The role is well known for the physical demands it makes on an actor who must depict Merrick’s deformities without makeup or prostheses. The deformities are dramatically introduced via a lecture by surgeon Sir Fredrick Treves. As each one is described, Mitri transforms his body appropriately, finally twisting himself into the tortured configuration in which he will remain throughout the show. More inspiring to me, though, is the personality that Mitri projects as his character emerges. Changing convincingly from a sideshow freak and social outcast to a charming, thoughtful and vulnerable man is no small feat. Despite a locked arm, contorted face, bent posture, and twisted foot, Mitri provided glances, grins, pauses, and turns that show not only his developing personality and wit, but also his vulnerabilities, moments of trust, disappointment, and courage. The show depends on being able to see Merrick’s soul in addition to hearing his words, and Mitri comes through.
Merrick’s rescuer and counterpoint, Sir Fredrick Treves, is also masterfully played by Rob Duval. Treves spots Merrick in a freak show and asks to examine him. He subsequently arranges for Merrick to come to the hospital where a fund is established that allows Merrick to stay for the rest of his life. This role requires balancing the curiosity of a medical scientist in the 19th century (a big time for medical discoveries and science itself) with the compassion of someone who sees the humanity in Merrick. Treves creates the safe and respectful environment in which Merrick finally begins to trust and ultimately reveals his intelligence and begins to let his dreams unfold. At the same time, Treves exercises considerable control over Merrick’s life at the hospital. Duval provides us with a confident and compassionate man who is also fighting his own battles.
The chemistry between Mitri and Duval is perfect and it drives the show. Soon after his arrival at the hospital Merrick chances a joke about his lunch tray, betraying to Treves that he might be more than a simple-minded human casualty. Mitri’s hint of a grin and Duval’s look of curiosity combined with dawning awareness on both sides create a beautiful moment. Later, Merrick tells Treves that his misshapen head is so big because it is so full of dreams and thoughts, and that until now there “was no one to think them for.” Again, Mitri and Duval pull off a moment of connection with great finesse. In a dream sequence, Merrick and Treves essentially trade places for a bit. This scene is absolute theatre magic as performed by Mitri and Duval. If nothing else, you should see the show for the interplay of these two fine actors.
One aspect of Merrick’s journey into humanity and selfhood presumably involved the development of his sexuality, if not physically then emotionally. Between the repressive mores of the era in which he lived and his appearance, Mr. Merrick was pretty much out of luck on that account. Still, in the play Treves takes care to introduce Merrick to Madge Kendal (Therese Olival), a beautiful actress of some renown. To me this is the most masterful subplot in The Elephant Man: an actress whose job it is to fool people by projecting an image and who gets paid to be watched comes on board to pretend to be nice to a man who wants to present himself honestly but who has been an unwilling spectacle for the entertainment of others who see him for only part of what he is. Merrick and Kendal quickly move beyond their respective facades, though. This is a really tricky story, and Therese Olival’s gentle characterization of Madge Kendal is another jewel in the crown of performances in this show. Mitri and Olival have a chemistry that allows them to convey a touching and heartrending connection between their characters.
There are several other fine actors in this show, all playing multiple roles. Al Lanier provides the religious angle as Bishop Walsham How. As Merrick becomes more religious Treves struggles with the conflict between religion and science. Who’s to blame for the grotesqueries that are often visited upon humanity? These men have different and surprising views. Saul Rollason as the head of the hospital provides multiple opportunities to reflect on science, medicine and religion. John Wells gives us a truly nasty freak show promoter. The “pin head girls,” played by Cassandra Smith, Rachael Uyeno, and Therese Olival, provide an entertaining interlude here and there, until we look deeper and realize that in real life these people were victims of microcephaly, and that their deformed skulls and diminished mental capacity are not really something we should be laughing at. Max Holtz, Thomas Smith and an ensemble who played people in the street (and moved the set pieces!) round out this truly great team. Paul Mitri and Alex Munro as co-directors have shaped everyone in this multifaceted story into a flawless whole.
Even though the narrative unfolds in sequence, each scene is quite distinct from the next. The play is structured like one of those multi-mirror areas in a clothing store where every time you turn around you see a different part of yourself. This is especially true in the second half which has fewer changes of location and drills down on the psychological aspects of the story.
I used to own an old dog who had a limp. I had occasion to run into many people while walking the dog outside. Quite often they would feel compassion and come to say hello. Almost inevitably they would start saying things like, “Oh, she’s just like me – a little tired and sore,” or “She keeps on going even though she is having it rough, like me.” It wasn’t unlike a scene in this play where socialites and royalty, who would have laughed at the Elephant Man if they had risked going to the barker’s tent, visit the “acceptable” Merrick to give him gifts and tell him how they see themselves in him. This is a story about the Elephant Man, but it is also a vehicle for looking at ourselves looking at others. How do we perceive others? How do we perceive ourselves as reflected in others? I encourage you to go to MVT’s The Elephant Man and let these fine actors give you something to look at and reflect on.