This past weekend, the small student-directed workshop “The Elephant Man” came to UCI via fourth-year Alex Spear and the Arts Department. The play slowly unfolds the tragic story of Joseph Merrick. From a young age, Merrick developed severe physical deformities, the most iconic of which was his gigantic head, making him universally perceived as monstrous in urban Victorian England.
The Tony Award-winning play, which premiered on Broadway in 1979, was performed in the intimate confines of the Nixon Theater to a full house. However, it quickly became clear that the somber tone of the script presented a conundrum for pace and investment in what was otherwise a fascinating story. While reaching for a particular sense of dramatic tension, the show had difficulty expressing an appreciable emotional spectrum, and instead fell flat on its own desperation to be taken seriously.
The production quickly struck pitfalls in clarity, as multiple performers spoke unclearly, and much of the subtext was lost in important character development and exposition. The script, toying with the dual-voyeurism of both characters and audience, couldn’t quite come to life, as speeches about the horrid Elephant Man were unconvincing and inspired little curiosity.
Merrick, played by transfer student Soren Santos, appeared to us without added makeup for the character’s deformities, following the original Broadway convention of leaving these features to the audience’s imagination. Instead, Santos adopted certain physical movements and postures to simulate Merrick’s unique body. Still, without some kind of passing visual marker to correlate Santos’ rendition with the historical figure, suspension of disbelief became a much greater trial. Even so, Santos’ performance provided a sense of the troubled soul inhabiting the social exile, even if this interpretation was hidden by the production’s overly brooding atmosphere.
The play achieved a healthy level of complexity with the introduction of actress Mrs. Kendal, played by third-year Ashley Nordland. Kendal provides the necessary counterpoint on the theme of Merrick’s exclusion from love – or even a normal sex life. Nordland’s entrance brought a much-needed shift, as the character unabashedly discusses the Elephant Man’s utterly normal genitalia with the flustered Dr. Treves. Nordland’s performance overall gave the show a crucial adjustment, finding some lightness in a unique situation, and demonstrating a genuine sense of emotional diversity.
Dr. Treves, portrayed by Isaak Olson, takes in Merrick after he’s abandoned by his manager, giving him a home at the London Hospital. Treves signifies a complex identity in his own semi-exploitive relationship with Merrick, yet achieves a redemptive transformation by the play’s end. While performed ably by Olson, many of these nuances of character were unfortunately lost, providing a sense of the status but perhaps not the full richness of internal conflict.
These primary roles were accompanied by a slew of functional characters played by the ensemble, providing more confusion than clarity to the story’s unfolding. At one moment, players were even exiting then almost immediately re-entering as completely different people, suggesting that the play might have functioned more smoothly by omitting the scene entirely. Ultimately, the ensemble seemed more strained by the plethora of characters, and as a result developed less rich individuals.
The set was minimalist, providing mostly the necessary furniture for the scenes’ actions. This proved both a blessing and a hindrance, as the spirit of the play thrives regardless of setting, but much of the show’s Victorian identity was dependent on costuming. This led to a problematic moment where Mrs. Kendal undressed before Merrick, but was visibly forced to use a cloak to compromise the stage illusion of nudity. For that moment, a piece of scenery could’ve taken the pressure off the actor and still given a sense of period and location.
These attributes aside, the production had serious tone and pacing issues. Constant blackouts made the already-slow play lag painfully, in a situation where transitions could’ve been blended or simply split across the stage. The piano accompaniment gave the show a sense of old film noir, but this possible aspect was unexplored by the staging, perhaps accentuating the straight-forward realist approach.
In all, “The Elephant Man” cried out for some release from its constrictive sobriety, whether in set, performance, color or interpretation. The show dragged in its curtness and suffered as a result
And yet, the bitter hardship of the Elephant Man was still clear, giving the audience a critique of society’s reflection on itself through the veil of sameness. Ultimately, the elephant in the room was not the protagonist, but the show’s own uncertainty of its expressive range.