The horribly deformed Merrick (Jeff Magnuson) is rescued from the abuse and ridicule of a freak show and moved to a hospital where he experiences a different form of display. He is educated and introduced to London society by ambitious doctor Frederick Treves (James Houska) and managed “for his own good.”
Treves is the center of this play, frustrated at his inability to cure Merrick, and increasingly confused about what is indeed “for his own good.” Houska brings intensity and depth to this role. Magnuson conveys a childlike earnestness as Merrick, performing without prosthetics (as in the movie) but with an artful posture that never lets us forget his limitations.
The set is simple but effective, mostly achieved with period furniture. Amanda Macomber adds to the late 19th century period feel with her costumes. The mood is lifted and sustained by haunting cello music recorded by Molly Rebeck. The supporting characters, Joe Clark, Steve Ledyard, Eve Davidson Laura Croff and Alexander Smith, deftly supply a diverse array of extras and significant others. I particularly enjoyed Steve Ledyard’s Ross, the sideshow hawker, and Laura Croff's Mrs. Kendal, an actress who comes to understand and trust Merrick, in a revealing way.
The Elephant Manis a sensitive journey, questioning the dualities of human nature, and the promises of science and religion. Thoughtful audiences will appreciate it through Sunday, March 24.
I don’t usually get my Ripples newsletter review of a Riverwalk show before the show has closed — but becauseA Behanding in Spokane Ripples is coming up so soon (opens March 28 - adult/offensive language, I’m told, including the “n” word… so stand warned, but it IS promised to be “F-ing funny”) — I DID get this more nuanced and thorough review than mine from Oralya Garza in time — so I figured I’d also include it here, while it still has the chance to lure a few more of you to catch this show before it closes — on MARCH 24 (not 17, as I erroneously wrote last night; thank you Ute.)
Here’s Oralya’s take on THE ELEPHANT MAN
The Elephant Manis a well written and engaging play that is thought-provoking and cathartic. It provides us with an opportunity to explore our own “John Merrick” qualities and makes us think them through to a place where we can comfortably learn to live with them, or change them.
Cellist Molly Rebeck maintained an undercurrent to the production that assured the difficult moments had a soft landing place. This was a wonderful addition to the production and an excellent choice by Director Amy Rickett – one of many solid choices. The set orchestrated by Leroy Cupp and Bob Nees supported the production without being overwhelming, assuring that only those items that were needed to create the appropriate picture were in place, and used appropriately.
There were standouts among the cast. There always are. But though I enjoyed everyone in the show, for me the “stealer” scenes were the Pinheads. I am always pleased to see Laura Croff on stage, but am even more pleased when seeing her play multiple roles that are so completely different from each other. I had the opportunity to bring a friend to the show (who knows Laura) and he didn’t even realize it was her in the multiple roles until he saw the photo board in the lobby at intermission. That’s good acting! Eve Davidson has been a pleasure to watch for years, and I am glad to see her in this production. It’s as if the presence of a veteran helps to elevate the entire production, and makes any “bumpy” parts more forgivable. The chemistry and comfort between the two was completely convincing and interesting to watch.
James Houska as Dr. Treves was creative in the choices he made, displayed a broad acting spectrum, and was spot on in his delivery. Here’s another actor that I would love to see more of, in meaty roles with lots of depth. He deserves it, and so do we.
Steve Ledyard is always fun to watch. He takes great care to assure his characters are very different from each other – a skill this entire cast modeled well! And who can make a better pompous arrogant priest face than Steve? I think he’s cornered that market! I enjoyed his change in dialects between characters. His Portrayal of Ross was big and dynamic and I loved to hate him.
Joe Clark and Alexander Smith delivered solid performances throughout the production. Filling in those areas that needed filling, to assure that the audience didn’t miss any significant event in John Merrick’s life. These are not the parts that people usually seek out for their lack of shiny-potential notoriety, but if they weren’t there, the play would suffer greatly. Multiple roles seems to be a strength and talent of this cast, providing the audience with an opportunity to witness a true ensemble create magic within their element.
This brings me to Merrick himself. Quite honestly, I had doubts. Not about the skill level of Mr. Magnuson, we’ve all witnessed the strength of his acting ability. Doubts like, will he fit the character? I’ve always seen this part portrayed by someone smaller, more meek, less threatening. I wondered how Jeff would compensate for that. Then…there is the question of a wife having the ability to direct her husband. It never worked for me, but maybe she’s got skills I don’t have! None of my business. But walking into the theatre, I’ll admit I did wonder about it. Would I witness the struggle between visions that had nothing to do with the play? Was it a stretch or a favor or a…something…crafted out of convenience rather than meeting the needs of the play?
But from the moment Mr. Magnuson stood in front of us as Dr. Treves recited the description of Mr. Merrick’s condition, I was once and completely sold. All of that external noise in my head was drowned out by watching him slowly transform as layer after layer of John Merrick covered and consumed Jeff Magnuson. I’ve seen this show. I’ve read this show. Yet I heard lines delivered by Merrick that I have never heard or read before – not that I haven’t – just that the way they were delivered, the thought behind them brought my experience to a different place. How can you hear words a hundred times, and never really have heard them until they are said through the right instrument?
I don’t want to say this show was “good” or that you should see it, (dare I say it) in support of your local community theatre. That’s not what this show is for. You should see it because it will make you think. It will make you feel something – it will remind you of a perspective which has been softly playing in the background, or real things, real people, real stories that need to be shared. When I walked out of the door – after having watched TWO FULL ACTS– I felt better than when I came in.
I had trouble sleeping because I was thinking about various elements – the way the light hit the model of the church; the efficiency of Michelle Smith, Tracy Smith, Kaelyn Smith and Taylor Smith, all in black, moving as if choreographed from one task to the next with precision; Leon Green’s gentle touch as sound of the Cello rose from the darkness; the fading of Richard Chapman and Cambray Sampson’s lights as they ushered us from one memory to the next; the teacups chosen by Sandy Norton to rest on John Merrick’s tray; Amanda Macomber’s careful variation between Mrs. Kendal’s dress and the Countess and the Duchess, adding a different element to all of the characters. An ensemble. Guided with the light hand of Amy Rickett and Marcus Fields, who seemed to know exactly when to allow the ponies to run, and when to guide them back into step. This is the kind of theatre I like to see.