The Elephant Man
The Lab at Inscape, 815 Seattle Blvd. S., 800-838-3006, seattlestageright.org. $15–$20. 7:30 p.m. Thurs.–Sat. & Mon. Ends March 22.
You know the title because of David Lynch’s 1980 film; however, STAGEright’s production of Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man—which premiered on Broadway in 1979—is a distinct script about the forlorn life of Joseph Merrick, usually called John.
Young doctor Frederick Treves (Brian Lange) discovers the debilitatingly disfigured Merrick (Matthew Gilbert) in a London freak show. Treves subsequently saves him by providing a permanent home at his hospital, where Merrick discovers happiness during the last years of his short life (1862–1890). After being rescued, not much happens—aside from Merrick’s expanded eminence and Dr. Treves’ apprehension about prostituting his patient for publicity.
Director Robert Bogue’s blocking expertly employs the entire small, multilevel space. His cast of 11 delivers performances ranging from brilliant to flat to indulgent. Sans prosthetics, the script demands that the lead actor portray misshapen Merrick through physicality alone, and Gilbert’s corporeal demeanor is as twisted as an Ann Coulter harangue. As the demure and compassionate Mrs. Kendal, a famous actress who befriends Merrick, Lorrie Fargo delights in the depth she delivers. Likewise, Lange vividly reveals a morally conflicted Dr. Treves.
However, some shoddy design elements divert us from the drama. Cherelle Ashby’s period costumes deserve a nod—save for the distractingly unpolished shoes of hospital administrator and fundraiser Mr. Gomm. They look like something from the Goodwill store up the street; who would trust this gentleman with capital? While Brendan Mack’s functional set makes excellent use of the small space, the construction hardly suggests Victorian solidity.
The essence of The Elephant Man is appearances, and the more stripped-down and actor-focused it is, the more mind-blowing. STAGEright adds some questionable stagecraft, though it hardly minimizes Merrick’s misery. Freak shows no longer exist in their cruel, 19th-century form. Yet watching Gilbert’s woeful performance, the thought occurs that were Merrick alive today, he’d undoubtedly have his own reality-TV show. Pomerance’s script elicits both the smug superiority of Merrick’s celebrity supporters and their surges of self-congratulation for rising above revulsion. Are our motives any less mixed when watching Lindsay Lohan today?