REVIEW: The Elephant Man (Boho Theatre)

  
  

Boho fills stage with profound, meticulous performances

  
  

Mike Tepeli as John Merrick and Laura Rook, Stephanie Sullivan, and Jill Connolly as the Pinheads. Photo by Peter Coombs.

  
The Bohemian Theatre Ensemble presents
     
The Elephant Man
   
Written by Bernard Pomerance
Directed by
June Eubanks
at
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through Feb 6  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Review by Paige Listerud

Just what is the price for belonging and acceptance? What if one can never fulfill the requirements for being part of the society of the human race, no matter how gentle, law-abiding and meritorious one is, no matter what efforts others make to provide some integration? Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man is unique in that it takes these issues to absolute extremes and forces us to see ourselves through its funhouse mirror. Boho Theatre has mounted an elegant, stately and psychologically mature production at Theatre Wit. June Eubanks’ direction adheres to the minimalist aesthetic and self-consciousness theatricality the play was born in, crystallizing Mike Tepeli as John Merrick and Steve O'Connell as Frederick Treves. Photo by Peter Coombs.poetically profound moments that elevate language much in the same way that John Merrick (Mike Tepeli) describes the effect of the uplifting architecture of St. Philip’s church.

John Merrick, dubbed the ‘Elephant Man’, and his place in late Victorian society, is uplifted for our gaze. He is a man who can never stop being a spectacle; his life, trapped in outrageous physical deformity, is constantly at the mercy of what the rest of his fellow humans see and suppose of him. I can praise the excellence with which Tepeli assumes Merrick’s form, virtually pretzel-twisting himself into character at the beginning of each scene, but more excellent is the way he captures Merrick’s childlike, innocent acceptance of himself, of those around him and his lot in life. Just as powerful are Merrick’s moments questioning, from his bath, Treves’ notions of established order or the rush of intense emotion upon Merrick once he shakes Mrs. Kendall’s (Cameron Feagin) hand for the first time–or loosing her, on Treves’ orders. Tepeli has completely mastered his role, with assurance the audience can relax into watching how others respond to him.

Likewise, Steve O’Connell’s Treves has all smooth and put-together bearing of a clueless do-gooder just beginning to realize how dubious his mercy towards Merrick is and how little he can do to alter the inequities between them. His relationship with Merrick seamlessly sets into motion Treves’ re-examination of his culture’s social inequality. When he begins to crack under unbearable conundrums about his real value, as a respected member of the British Empire or as a human being, O’Connell sculpts Treves’ emotional downfall with intricate care–his breakdown in the arms of Bishop How (Thad Azur) is every bit the epiphany it is supposed to be.

     
Steve O'Connell as Frederick Treves, Mike Tepeli as John Merrick, Cameron Feagin as Mrs. Kendall. Photo by Peter Coombs. Zach Bloomfield as Ross and Mike Tepeli as John Merrick. Photo by Peter Coombs.

The same meticulous care can be witnessed in every aspect of Boho’s production—one of the more scintillating aspects being that the rest of the cast take on multiple roles and carve a unique, distinctive character with each role. Cameron Feagin indelibly etches both the horrified missionary Nurse Sandwich and the charmingly controlled and worldly actress Mrs. Kendall. Zach Bloomfield’s Ross is devastating, particularly when he comes begging to Merrick in the hospital for another crack at being his handler—Bloomfield and Tepeli could conduct an acting masterclass based on that scene study alone. Michael Kingston’s turn as Carr Gomm brings the right note of complacency to his foil for Treves—an administrator quite content to oversee Merrick’s care, so long as his freakish presence keeps the money rolling in to the hospital in donations from the upper classes.

Indeed, the only flaws of the production may be its still awkward scene changes. Jill Vanc’s projection of scene titles and their announcement at each scene purposely heighten The Elephant Man’s theatricality. But upon opening the show still suffered some clumsiness in actors getting on and off through the transition—a problem that could be worked out in the course of the run.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Thad Anzur as Bishop How, Michael Kingston as Carr Gomm, Mike Tepeli as John Merrick, Michael Mercier as Lord John, Cameron Feagin as Mrs. Kendall, Steve O'Connell as Frederick Treves. Photo by Peter Coombs

Photo (left to right): Thad Anzur as Bishop How, Michael Kingston as Carr Gomm, Mike Tepeli as John Merrick, Michael Mercier as Lord John, Cameron Feagin as Mrs. Kendall, Steve O’Connell as Frederick Treves. (photo by Peter Coombs / Boho)

     
     

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