Review: Elephant Man (Red Ink Productions)


Messy production needs to find the reality


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Red Ink Productions presents
The Elephant Man
Written by Bernard Pomerance
Directed by Wenda Shereos
at First Free Church, 5255 N. Ashland (map)
through June 4  |  tickets: $12  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

The story of Joseph “John” Merrich (Scott Cupper), otherwise know as the Elephant Man, is one of hope in the face of tragedy, and the goodness that can live under the most hideous of exteriors. Deformed at a young age, Merrick toured Europe as a sideshow attraction until he met Frederick Treves (Tyler Cove), a compassionate doctor who invited Merrick to be examined at the London Hospital, the place Merrick would call home until his death at the age of 27. Bernard Pomerance’s play focuses on the later years of Merrick’s life, as he begins to reenter a world that had shunned him, now visited by royalty rather that the taunting masses.

Directed by Wenda Shereos, Red Ink’s productions suffers from a lack of honesty in the performances, and there’s an artificial quality to the acting that makes it difficult to connect with the action on stage. In the title role, Cupper gives the strongest performance, capturing Merrick’s tortured sadness with only a few of the character’s physical deformities. There’s no makeup or prosthetics used on Cupper’s face, and it would have been nice to see some more done to emphasize Merrick’s mutated features. The costumes are some of the more polished elements of the productions, so it’s odd to see the Elephant Man depicted with such little augmentation.

Merrick’s relationship with Mrs. Kendall (Natalia Leonard), the actress hired by Treves to show John affection, reveals glimpses of a better show, and there’s genuine tenderness in Kendall’s treatment of her client. Kendall becomes the first woman to feel John’s touch, and Cupper resonates with need and satisfaction at the small bit of intimacy, the most truthful moment of the show. There are still the occasional instances the Cupper and Leonard are guilty of high school style “face out to the audience” acting, but that’s a directorial problem that plagues other areas of the play more intensely.

Wenda Shereos’ direction is the main problem of The Elephant Man, and the actors haven’t reached the emotional heights needed to land the script’s full impact. The performances are too safe and subdued, and the second act moves at a crawl as a result. Bizarre choices like having the ensemble exit after a group sequence at the start of act two, only to reenter immediately for an almost identical sequence breaks the momentum of the act before if even starts. The production is underscored by cello soloist William Jason Raynovich, who does much to set the tone of the piece through music, but occasionally plays for a bit too long, further slowing down the production. Much of the emotional power of the script is diminished because of the lagging pace of the place, not helped by sloppy technical aspects like blackouts before actors have finished the scene. At one point, two actors actually pantomimed a prop, completely destroying any illusion of reality. That’s not even excusable for a high school production.

The Elephant Man is an ideal play for Red Ink’s mission statement, exploring a life of suffering and the sanctuary that can be found in other people. Although the echo causes problems when combined with some of the actors’ dialects, the church space brings a certain ambiance that emphasizes Merrick’s faith, and the cross that hangs behind the set is a constant remind of the hope and forgiveness Jesus Christ represents. Like Christ, John Merrick is both every man and more than man, and this production just needs more work so the power of Merrick’s story reaches the audience.

Rating: ★½

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Red Ink Productions’ production of Elephant Man continues through June 4th, with performances Friday and Saturday at 8pm in the First Free Church, 5255 N. Ashland (map).  Tickets are $12, and can be purchased online.