When you are told a thing, you must listen. Take a closer look with your exhibitionist eyes to the current co-production at the Fells Point Corner Theatre with The Collaborative Theatre; the current production of The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance, which launches the 2016-2017 season #RescueMe. Directed by Anthony Lane Hinkle, this strange venture into Victorian London exposes theatergoers to beauty that goes beyond the eye of the beholder. Fully articulating one of the core concepts of theatrical endeavors— suspension of disbelief— the production in its essence is a remarkable parade of aesthetically pleasing features.
Capitalizing on the notion that beauty can be found in even the most unseemly and grotesque of places or objects if only portrayed in the proper light, Set and Lighting Designer Kel Millionie unearths a rather striking loveliness in the show’s setting. Crafting a decadent, two-tiered play space that reads as grandiose and simultaneously ruddy, Millionie physically represents the overarching theme of prettiness beyond the exterior. The walls are treated with a paint style that gives them the illusion of being molded from mud; this crude and rudimentary treatment is then beautified by the sweeping elegance of the set’s structure, which accurately reflects the duality of the production’s main theme.
Millionie also has a finely honed approach to the show’s lighting. There are moments of shadow and light in play that highlight certain moments of tension while others unobtrusively illuminate the simplicity of certain scenes. The balance of light and darkness that Millionie brings to the show, particularly during the scenic shifts, which never happen in true darkness but rather in dimmed crossfade, is a solid representation of his ability to light an interior-focused set design, in addition to providing subtlety among these illuminations. Millionie also doubles as the Co-Projection Designer, a role shared with Director Anthony Lane Hinkle.
The projections, on the whole, are quite intriguing to look at, but their thematic execution falls short of their intention. While physically clear and delivered with precision timing in relation to their appearance on the screen as scenes move from one to the next, the framework which they set around the play feels disjointed from the multiple approaches which Hinkle is applying to the production. The use of the elephant-man photos are the only time that the projections truly work— this happens during the ‘lecture scene’ and they fit in as a device that allows the audience to feel like they are part of the medical audience being exposed to this rare case. Otherwise, Hinkle and Millionie’s use of projections— however fascinating to look upon— feels trite. Most of these images are projected as a lead-in to a new scene, attempting to prime the audience for what’s coming next, something that playwright Bernard Pomerance’s work does well enough in the basic fluidity of the script without requiring such a heavy artistic hand of reinforcement.
Hinkle’s directorial work is uneven and somewhat inconsistent throughout the show. For as many perfectly blocked scenes, strikingly profound concepts, and overall impressive moments crafted there are an equal number of missed opportunities, unfinished connections, and lost moments during the performance. Hinkle’s masterpiece moment in the show is the real-time transformation of John Merrick (Grayson Owen) juxtaposed against the narrative description given by Treves (Sean Coe) during the lecture scene. Positioning Owen as an ordinary upright pillar of the human physique, lit delicately in warm amber, an awe-striking shift occurs as the actor physically takes on each of the deformities Coe describes. This moment is a powerful concoction, ensnaring the audience and inviting them to buy into the premise of Merrick’s disfiguration.
The overall direction that Hinkle provides shows a muddled understanding of the characters, particularly in Merrick’s case. The affected speech delivery that Hinkle guides Owen into using is a disservice to the potential portrayal as it augments how difficult Merrick is to understand rather than showcasing how hard Merrick is working to be understood. The same is true of Merrick’s movement, showing how abnormal his deformities are rather than how hard he is working to maintain normalcy in spite of them. Despite this lack of understanding, there are good choices set down by Hinkle even if at times they fail to reach the full potential of poignancy. The handshake at the end of the first act is rather striking, though it serves as one of Hinkle’s more notable missed opportunities; wherein if Merrick had been struggling to present his good hand and then Mrs. Kendal chose to take his bad hand the profundity of the moment and its meaning would have been increased tenfold.
A great deal of the show’s praise falls to the shoulders of Sound Designer Chris Aldrich. Though the sound effects themselves are few, only the patter of the gentle storm in the middle of the second act coming immediately to mind, the underscored musical selections are divine. Appropriately selected to match the Victorian era, Aldrich infuses emotional subtlety into these moments, many of which guide scenic shifts into a fluid choreography as they occur. This too can be noted as one of Hinkle’s successes with the production, the ease and grace with which the actors change scenery to the gentle rhythm of Aldrich’s musical selection, the ultimate result of which is perpetually perfect pacing for the play.
While Costume Designer Ben Kress creates a somewhat unremarkable wardrobe selection for the cast, it is appropriately fashioned to fit the show’s era. High praise is, however, due to Shelley Steffens Joyce for her creation and construction of Mrs. Kendal’s (Aladrian Wetzel) dress. Glamourous and befitting of a haughty and famous stage actress, Joyce’s contribution to the show is a glorious example of beauty for beauty’s sake and is rather fetching to look upon for all of its intricate detailing.
One of the less appealing facets of the performance comes from the whirlwind tour of the British Isles given by Dialect Coaches Grayson Owen and Ann Turiano. Though it is not expected in community theatre for accents of any variety to be delivered in perfection, if two dialect coaches are credited, and their work woven to be an integral part of the performance, it is an unfortunate downfall to experience them done so poorly. While there are definitely English sounds being delivered from all performers there is no consistency from any of them with a great many of them delivering several different dialects often times during the same sampling of dialogue. The production would have been better served had the accents been left out entirely as the performers then could have more readily focused on the text being delivered rather than allowing the accents to become a hang-up to a potentially impressive body of work.
Supporting performers like Darius Foreman and Elizabeth Ung are given brief stage time but make the most of their appearances. Foreman, who appears as a Porter at the institute as well as a policeman and Lord John, is swift of entrance, sharp of posture, and overall attentive to his craft. The same can be said for Ung during her stiff and haughty delivery as Nurse Sandwich and again in her more playful portrayal as one of the Pinheads. Aladrian Wetzel, whose primary role is that of Mrs. Kendal, serves as the other Pinhead and Ung pairs well with Wetzel creating a jovial, albeit disturbing, working relationship between them.
Wetzel carries something unidentifiably reserved on the shoulders of the Mrs. Kendal character. Whether this is an intentional directorial choice to keep Mrs. Kendal aloof and as grand as her title and position have created her out to be or something else is unclear. Wetzel does, however, soften and present a much more convivial character when alone with Merrick in the second act. It is this exchange, leading up to the more scandalous moment, between Wetzel and Owen that is most praiseworthy and one of the more earnest moments in the production. Exchanging physicality quite quickly from the upright austere Mrs. Kendal to the more curious and invigorating Pinhead, Wetzel showcases a versatility in the performance given as both characters. Cowering alongside Ung when being reprimanded by their ambiguously-accented Manager (Mark Scharf), Wetzel also displays a convincing ability to affect these character’s ages and mental capacity.
Scharf, who delivers an impressive and distinct physicality for each of the differing characters he undertakes during the show, is unfortunately the worst offender when it comes to accent consistency. This aside, the regal confidence with which he delivers Carr Gomm is well suited for the character. Scharf’s interactions with the others are what makes his performance noteworthy, particularly when barking at the Pinheads when playing their manager and also when sniping, though very tactfully, at Bishop Walsham How (Frank Mancino.) Equally impressive in the differences that he exemplifies between his characters, Mancino does a fine job in separating the pious and charitable Bishop from the lowly hocking character of Ross.
Frederick Treves (Sean Coe) is the renowned surgeon upon whose shoulders the story’s burden lies. Although the tale is that of John Merrick (Grayson Owen), it is Treves who bares the responsibility of telling it. Coe is clinically detached from the story, delivering most of his lines with a sterility that would shame a quarantine containment chamber. This is at first impressively appealing, serving as a strong choice to take the literal approach to his clinical connection. However, this detachment leaves Coe’s performance feeling somewhat hollow, particularly in moments where there ought to be some sort of emotional connection fueling his outbursts, as indicated by the text. This is particularly true of the reprimanding moment later in Act II. Between Hinkle’s missed opportunity of playing up the subtle undercurrent of connection between Treves and Mrs. Kendal and Coe’s purposeful detachment from Merrick, the words blast from his mouth without emotional intention and feel forced. Coe’s emotional breakdown near the show’s conclusion appears to come out of left field because of this detachment and feels disjointed from the rest of his performance as well as from the rest of the play.
Grayson Owen, as the titular character, delivers a presentation of Merrick under Hinkle’s direction rather than unearthing the full potential of the character. While there is clearly a deep-seeded emotional investment, because of Hinkle’s approach these feelings are never given the opportunity to settle fully into the character or connect on the level which they are so desperately seeking to connect. Owen’s commitment to the physicality to his character is second to none, as is the commitment to the speech affectation and there are some remarkably astonishing moments that occur throughout the performance because of this dedication and steadfast ability to carry these traits consistently. Being lifted in and out of the bathtub is one of the more profound moments that comes to mind in this regard.
Ultimately the show is flawed in its missed connections and concepts but somehow beautiful in other arenas and aspects. This creates a unique theatrical experience as it gives cause to more closely examine what it is that’s actually being viewed, drawing a perfect parallel to the events that occur inside The Elephant Man.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission
The Elephant Man plays through October 2, 2016 as a co-production with The Collaborative Theatre at Fells Point Corner Theatre—251 S. Ann Street in historic Fells Point of Baltimore, MD. Tickets can be purchased at the door or in advance online.