by Jeff Grygny
The anthropologist Victor Turner observed that many societies attribute magical powers to their outcasts. We can see this in the sadhus of India, the holy hermits of Medieval Europe, or the mystique that often surrounds Native Americans. It seems to be a very human tendency to paradoxically assign supernatural status to the very people whom the mainstream rejects.
You can see this phenomenon clearly in The Elephant Man, Bernard Pomerance’s play based on the true story of John Merrick, currently in a low-key but potent production by Voices Found Repertory. This plucky band of enterprising theater majors has been toiling away in the basement of the old Plankington Building for several years now, burnishing their skills on Shakespeare and the like, and in the process becoming one of the city’s most vibrant companies, punching way above their weight class. This production, along with their last show Henry V, is easily as good as anything you can see at the Rep—and without the institutional bloat. It’s a clear, skillfully wrought production of a well-made script, and it’s compelling from start to finish.
Director Brandon Haut creates an almost documentary quality with crisp, understated, but authentic-feeling performances from all the players. The presence of a few seasoned actors brings a further sense of realism to the story, which, while taken from the journal of one Doctor Frederick Treves (who worked at a London hospital in the late Nineteenth Century), plays like an incredible work of fiction.
Treves first encounters Merrick as a carnival exhibit. Intrigued by the man’s extraordinary medical condition, he pays to examine him. The black and white photographs of the actual Merrick that are projected during the play show a hideously distorted body; a massive, irregular head with only one helpless eye to suggest that there might be a human consciousness beneath the mottled, stinking flesh. Zach Ursem rises to this challenging role, not with prosthetic makeup, but with disciplined physicality: he shows Merrick’s abject pathos, but also, once he is taken in by Treves and treated kindly, his gentle inquisitiveness and even flashes of humor. It’s an un-showy, sincere performance that honors both the historical person and the actor who plays him.
As Treves, Thorin Ketelsen perfectly displays the propriety of an educated Victorian man: enlightened, rational, and unreflectively privileged. His decency weighs against the paternalistic conditions he sets for Merrick’s care. To provide social contact—on the premise that only a woman who can conceal her true feelings could interact with the man—he hires a celebrated actress, who, as played wonderfully by Haley Ebinal, proves quite capable of seeing past appearances, becoming Merrick’s truest friend. She engages her social network, and soon Merrick is a celebrity: the great and fashionable parade through his room, leaving expensive gifts for the privilege of speaking with the strange prodigy of nature.
But this change in fortune begins to raise unsettling questions in Treves’ mind. Merrick is a “surd,” defined as “an incongruity, an inconsistency, a conflict with a context that appears as lawful, orderly experience.” Difference creates order, but a surd destabilizes it. Treves begins to doubt the decency of his actions, his faith, and the validity of the entire Victorian society. In an amazing nightmare scene, he appears himself as a subject to be studied and discussed, in a world where Merrick is the norm.
We can certainly read The Elephant Man as a critique of privilege in one of it’s most extreme historical forms. But there is something else: you might leave the play feeling a strange elation, a refreshment of the mind and senses, like the catharsis of encountering a great mystery. Does this play let us experience the blessing of the uncanny that in the past informed the Hindu ascetics and the Christian saints? Or have we simply joined the train of thrill-seekers paying to gawk at the freak? This play raises the possibility that they may be variations of the same thing.
If our culture held a sacred place for its outsiders, would we have such difficulties with intolerance and hatred? Is such a thing even possible in a democratic order? Who can say?
Voices Found Repertory presents
The Elephant Man
by Bernard Pomerance
playing through March 15