The Elephant Man

While animals may abandon their disabled, as human beings we would like to believe that we have evolved beyond this behavior, and certainly the little protections afforded by our anti-discrimination laws are a step in the right direction. But as the story of Joseph Merrick tells us, there is a lot more we can do to foster the spiritual and artistic nature of all human beings, including those in whom nature has altered the standard set of genes.

Borrowing from the Academy Award-winning movie, Bas Bleu Theatre's current production of The Elephant Man, directed by Kathy Reinking, opens with a cinematic snapshot of Victorian England and its rigid beliefs—including its religious pretensions and caste-system—while introducing the principle characters of this troubling biographical tale.

Photo of Stetson Weddle and Joseph Merrick, Robert M. Reid as Dr. Frederick Treves, and Wendy Ishii as Mrs. Kendall
(L to R) Stetson Weddle as Joseph Merrick,
Robert M. Reid as Dr. Frederick Treves,
and Wendy Ishii as Mrs. Kendall
Photo: William A. Cotton
Merrick, who suffers from excessive bone and tissue abnormalities, is forced into a workhouse as a child, and later into a freak show, to support himself until, in a final act of abuse, he is abandoned in Brussels. Fortuitously, Merrick is sent from there back to the Royal London Hospital where he finds a home under the patronage of Dr. Frederick Treves, who had examined him once before.

Unlike the film, the stage version of this story does not attempt to recreate Merrick's physical condition other than by the posture and voice of his portrayer, with the rest of the startling details introduced through set posters and, commonly, as is the case here, educational lobby displays.

In a detailed and sensitive performance, Stetson Weddle deftly conveys the indications of Merrick's condition with his hobbled gait, twisted posture, and gentle voice. As Merrick's cause is taken up by royals and noted artists, Weddle's Merrick grows from tentative and cowered into a delicate blend of insight and gentleness.

Merrick's relationship with Treves undergoes a vast transformation as well. At first, Treves is an idiosyncratic combination of cold scientific curiosity, self-righteous moralism, and patient tutelage—a man who, in his written account, inexplicably changes Merrick's name from Joseph to John. But unlike Merrick, who thrives under mentorship, Treves fails to heed the wise words of his superior, Carr Gomm, the hospital's Governor. Thus, later we witness the precocious student, Merrick, giving moral instruction to Treves, who is unable to see his own cultural prejudices.

Robert M. Reid introduces us to Treves as a vibrant, optimistic professional, warmed by the prospect of a distinguished and prosperous medical career. But rather than let successful research guide his direction, in an impressive dramatic arc Reid's Treves disintegrates as material concerns eat away at his well-being.

In many ways, the story is framed by Gomm, who secures funding from Queen Victoria and the public to support Merrick's care, and who writes the final encapsulation of events for the London Times. Here, L. Michael Scovel's Gomm is worldly and authoritative, though more understated than need be, given that his monologues essentially open and close the play.

Photo of Kurt Brighton as Ross and Robert M. Reid as Dr. Frederick Treves
(L to R) Kurt Brighton
as Ross and
Robert M. Reid as
Dr. Frederick Treves
Photo: William A. Cotton
Kurt Brighton delivers a wonderfully coarse and scheming Ross, Merrick's carny handler, while Wendy Ishii's Mrs. Kendall delicately explores Merrick's artistic nature. Sarah Studebaker's soulful live original cello accompaniment provides a thoughtful and moody atmosphere for the action.

Director Reinking's naturalistic settings and direction allows Weddle to emulate Merrick's soft-spoken style, but the gap between the company's intimate, comfortable seating and its large, and at times remote, stage, unnecessarily distances the audience from what could be a much more intimate experience.

Bas Bleu Theatre Company's production of The Elephant Man runs through July 23rd. 970-498-8949.

Bob Bows


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