Arts » Performing Arts

The Elephant Man fit for a princess



Over the years, I've been given a driver's license and a bullet casing, among many oddities, instead of the usual ticket to gain admission to shows at the Carolina Actors Studio Theatre. The latest legal tender on Clement Avenue, a dead rat tagged with your seat number for The Elephant Man, ranks right up there for perverse eccentricity. But the overall lobby theme — a mishmash of carnival bunting and Whitechapel squalor — strikes exactly the right mood before we're ushered into the CAST boxagon. Strategically placed as you enter from the ticket window to the bar, there's an exaggerated poster of the Elephant Man such as you'd see around town when a traveling peepshow rolls into town, enticing us to satisfy our cruel voyeuristic urges to see exotic deformities.

Inside the boxagon, projection screens, hooded with the same bunting we find in the lobby, are centrally located on all four walls of the theater. The most important sequence we view there, thanks to a visual effect by Jay Thomas, is the gradual transformation of Hank West's profile into that of John Merrick (1862-1890), the celebrated Elephant Man, when his protector Dr. Frederick Treves presents him to his colleagues as a scientific curiosity. In an Act 2 fantasy scene, the roles are flip-flopped as Merrick clinically dissects Treves's upstanding Victorian hang-ups — while the visual effect runs backward from monstrosity to normality. Completing the satisfying symmetry, West wears no special makeup or prosthetics when he discards his iconic burlap mask, so we strain to see his outer ugliness while Treves strains toward his inner beauty.

By this time, you've gathered that CAST's Elephant Man has been meticulously thought-out by director Michael Harris and his design collaborators. Harris elicits a chaste performance from West that is radically different from gravel-voiced John Hurt's take on Merrick in the 1980 film. West is a quailing, grown-up Tiny Tim when we first see him toward the unraveling of his freak show career, in the care of his keeper/promoter Ross. That the true monsters lurk around Merrick is a point vividly made by Charles LaBorde in the role. Nor do we need to wait until deep into Act 2, when Ross, trying to win Merrick back into his keeping after his market value has skyrocketed, cunningly points out that John's benefactors are exploiting him as unscrupulously as he did. We've seen it quite clearly.

Bernard Pomerance's script faithfully shows Treves parleying his stewardship of Merrick into a post of personal physician to His Majesty, while Richard Carr-Gomm, his supervisor, reaps a windfall of charity for the Whitechapel Hospital by writing an open letter to a London newspaper on Merrick's pitiful plight. Ted Delorme is in unusually good form as the wily, blustering Gomm, but it's Bradley James Archer, in his Charlotte debut, who provides a wonderful window into the weaknesses, failings, and vanity of Treves. A holiness named Bishop How shows up at the hospital, harvesting the soul of Merrick for the greater glory of Christ, another plum role that LaBorde feasts on.

Cynthia Farbman Harris plays the pivotal role of Mrs. Kendal, the actress hired to socialize Merrick. She turns out to be more than Treves bargains for, successfully introducing Merrick into high society. At first, Kendal must call upon her theatrical powers to endure Merrick's presence, but she becomes his most ardent admirer and his most selfless promoter. During his first days in Treves' care, a housemaid desperate for a job flees from Merrick in terror, but eventually after Kendal's intervention, Princess Alexandra graces Merrick with a visit. All of Kendal's powers as an artist — pretense, perception and persuasion — are involved in this wondrous transformation.

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