Farmer's Branch — Fire jugglers outside of the aptly named Firehouse Theatre and a sleight of hand magician in the lobby create a carnival atmosphere pre-show for Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man, directed by Shawn Gann. Jason Leyva’s L.I.P. Service Productions gives the audience a taste of the world in which the disfigured John Merrick was wallowing when he was rescued and rocketed to London’s societal heights. But these base thrills may be a bit of a bait and switch for what is in fact a very heady play.
On the other hand, misdirection is an essential ingredient in magic.
Jeremiah Teutsch designs a broad playing area with white screens for shadow play behind and a railing above. The sideshow banner stage right advertises the title character complete with illustration of a half man/half elephant. Lighting designer Dawn Wittke has her work cut out for her isolating actors and switching locales from street to hospital or even to traveling train. Emylee Kyle, meanwhile, must establish 19th century London through period costumes. Even with these considerable contributions, the standout of design belongs to original music and sound by Josh Bradford, who employs the cello playing of Adam Eason to manipulate the tension of the evening. He does as much as the rest to tell the story with sound alone.
The who of Merrick’s ascent is of more concern to the playwright than the how. Merrick’s real life deformities are here represented through actor Jason Leyva’s posture alone, and render him almost statue-like in rigidity. Leyva’s astonishing performance in the title role relies mostly on careful timing and accomplished restraint. Consequently, the surrounding roles make for most of the evening’s moving, literally and figuratively. As the characters learn about Merrick, they learn about themselves. The Elephant Man is somewhere between a Rorshach test and a funhouse mirror.
Perhaps, the play is, as well.
Chiefest among those surrounding him and our Everyman is Dr. Frederick Treves. Pat Watson plays the rigid physician with restrained compassion and professional interest. Sara Lovett, by complete contrast, plays the famous actress, Mrs. Kendal, with decidedly feminine warmth. Each is determined to create as normal an environment for Merrick as possible after most of his life had been spent at the hands of an unscrupulous sideshow barker, Ross (an entertaining Chris Messersmith). The generous donations from the newspaper-reading public and an understanding hospital administrator, Carr Gomm (a knowing Bert Pigg) make a different life possible.
But how different?
The clientele changes from nobodies to notables, but their motivation to engage with this extraordinary unfortunate remains suspect. Would Bishop How (Messersmith, broader here) have tended to his spiritual needs when he was in a sideshow? Does Treves’ desire for Merrick’s normalcy include all aspects of life or are some things off limits? What’s more revealing of Mrs. Kendal, taking off her top or letting down her hair?
These are the true tricks of the evening or magic, depending on how you look at it.
Director Gann seems to sense this, settling for simpler staging over more complicated choreography. It’s an honest approach, allowing for the bigger ideas to emerge. Leyva and Lovett create heat despite a glacial gap between them. With their stillness comes a nobility that isn’t broken until Dr. Treves enters. Watson and Pigg as Treves and the head of the hospital, Gomm, have memorable mentor/student moments. Even Messersmith as Ross, the contemptible con artist, gets time for reflection that argues for our sympathy.
Paradoxically, the more energetic moments lose clarity. Adding people or passion muddies the waters. Partially, this is due to the uneven ensemble that sometimes comes with a L.I.P. Service production. But partially the show loses its confidence, culminating in Treves’ wondering what it was all about. For all the poetic posturing of the script the evening ends up prosaic.
Things are the way they are. Unequal and unjust despite great efforts of well-intentioned people. Wishing there was more is akin to wanting magic to be real despite knowing how the trick is performed.
If that’s disappointing, maybe that says more about the reviewer than the reviewed.
A funhouse mirror, indeed.