The Elephant Man
‘Elephant Man’ comes to Diversey Avenue
|Saint Sebastian Players presents|
|The Elephant Man|
Review by J.H. Palmer
Saint Sebastian Players have taken on the story of John Merrick, a man who suffered from physical deformities so severe that he was known as the Elephant Man, and lived for 27 years from 1862-1890 in London. I wondered, as others probably did, how the personage of Merrick would be adapted onstage. (In the 1980 film by David Lynch of the same name, John Hurt, who played the title role, wore prosthetics and was heavily made up.) As it turned out, not only is the character of John Merrick played without the use of makeup or prosthetics, it is played by Simina Contras, a Romanian actress who makes her U.S. debut in this production. I hadn’t considered the possibility of a female lead for The Elephant Man, and it proved an interesting choice.
On first appearing onstage, Contras is presented to a medical audience by Dr. Frederick Treves (Doug Werder), and in describing each disfigurement to the audience, Contras takes on the deformity, transforming herself from an ordinary woman dressed in slacks and a loose, flowing top into her interpretation of the mistreated and captivating creature who was John Merrick. Contras’ is a very physical performance, she staggers along the stage in a labored shuffle with the use of a cane, contorting her body into angles that made me wonder if there weren’t some physical consequences from having to rehearse and perform in such a posture. Questions like – does she have a chiropractor? came to mind. Hers is by far the strongest performance in the piece, and evokes not just the physical discomfort experienced by Merrick (and by proxy, by all people who suffer from deformities), but the emotional toll exacted by living in a body that instills revulsion in all but the most kind-hearted.
The supporting cast is adequate, but there are moments where it feels as though they aren’t quite sure what to do with themselves, or are simply too self-conscious to fully deliver. In the scene where Merrick is saved from an angry mob, the actors portraying bloodthirsty Britons exude neither anger nor a mob mentality. Of the principals, the strongest is Julie Johnson as Mrs. Kendal, the actress who pushes through her initial revulsion of Merrick’s appearance and befriends him in a way that no one else can. Werder’s portrayal of Dr. Treves is convincing, but is missing the element of distress that is necessary to the doctor’s plight.
Despite some flaws, the performance moves at a steady pace and keeps the audience’s attention throughout. This is a big undertaking, and Contras’ performance makes it worth it; just when she convinces the audience that they know what to expect, she acts out Merrick’s death in startling convulsions that convey Merrick’s physical discomfort in a way that is palpable. It takes some doing for an actor to make an audience ignore the basic facts of their physical body for two hours, but I had all but forgotten that not only is Contras not disfigured, she’s also a woman.
The Elephant Man continues through November 13th at St. Bonaventure, 1625 W. Diversey (map), with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15, $10 for students with valid IDs and $7 for seniors and children younger than 12. Group pricing available. Tickets can be purchased by phone (773-404-7922) or online at ticketweb.com. Information at saintsebastianplayers.org (Running time: 2 hours with one 10-minute intermission)
All photos by OCA Photography
Doug Werder, Joe Ogiony, Jake Penzell, Simina Cotras, Julie Johnson*, Jim Masini*, Jim Moore, Rita Crowley, Julia Rigby, Sukit McWilliams
behind the scenes
Don Johnson* (director), Jonathan “Rocky” Hagloch* (producer), Trevor Ketteman (asst. director), Matt Harter (stage manager), Chad Bianchi (sets), Adam Dunaway III (lighting), Brian Hupke (sound), Paula Consdorf (costumes), Jill Chuckerman Test* (PR), Julie Johnson* (dramaturg), Sara Stec (graphics), John Oster* (playbill, photography), Trevor Ketteman (props), Julie Johnson* (lobby display), Jim Masini* (lobby display), OCA Photography (photos)
* indicates Saint Sebastian Players member