Review: Elephant Man (Red Ink Productions)

     
     

Messy production needs to find the reality

     
     

Red Ink logo

  
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
  
  

Red Ink logo

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.

  
  

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)

     
     

REVIEW: Ghosts (Boho Theatre)

    

The Burdens of Shame and Seasonal Affective Disorder

 

Saren Nofs-Snyer and Cast

  
Bohemian Theatre Ensemble presents
  
Ghosts
  
by Henrik Ibsen
Translated by
Lanford Wilson
Directed by
Peter Marston Sullivan
through July 18th  | 
tickets: $17-$20 |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Perhaps most of Henrik Ibsen’s work can be summed up thus: a study of driven, lusty and regretful Norwegian birds, trapped in their gilded (sometimes not so gilded) bourgeois cage. Hence, the removal of the fourth wall, which isn’t really removed, just made transparent–theatrically turned to glass in order to examine these lovely, Saren Nofs-Snyder and Steve O'Connell haunted Norwegians under glass, as if they were the subjects of scientific inquiry. Make no mistake, the fourth wall is just as imprisoning as the other three and perhaps it is crueler, since it allows for the audience’s voyeuristic attentions.

Well, since there is no escape for the birds, you might as well watch. Plus, what could be more diverting than a family’s shameful secrets? Perhaps the biggest challenge for Bohemian Theatre’s production of Ghosts is to make the burdens of shame, judgment and disgrace experienced by these characters as immediate and tangible to the audience as it is for them.

Peter Marston Sullivan’s direction is meticulous and forthright; it gives Ghosts’ excellent cast the right structure to work their naturalist chops to the max; and the new translation that they work with by Lanford Wilson is fresh and clear. Yet the overall production, while artful and technically accurate, still feels far too removed and lacking in immediacy. Make no mistake—this is a jewel of a production, a pretty jewel with interesting, exact and glimmer facets. But it also misses that special something that compels a viewer toward empathy; it feels far too removed in its period setting to involve the audience in its web of secrets and lies, judgments and shame.

If there is one thing that Boho’s particular experiment/production proves, it’s that what scandalized the general public a little more than a century ago no longer comes close to shocking us. Bohemian prodigal son Oswald Alving (Charles Riffenburg) spars with Reverend Manders (Steve O’Connell) over the naturalness and appropriateness of family life among his unmarried Parisian artistic friends. But, in spite of its power to scandalize in 19th-century terms, heterosexual cohabitation without “the benefit of clergy” no longer raises an eyebrow in these sexually amorphous times. Love the 60’s Sexual Revolution or hate it, the bohemian life isn’t bohemian anymore; it’s mainstream.

Even a boyfriend or husband enjoying pornography doesn’t hold the charge that it once did. Now, a boss cheating on his wife with his assistant, under the same roof as the wife; then marrying her pregnant ass off to someone else—that definitely still holds potent sleazy power. All the same, bosses and their mistresses are such a common alternative to heterosexual monogamy they practically deserve their own healthcare plan.

 

Sean Thomas and Florence Ann Romano Charles Riffenburg, Saren Nofs-Snyder, Steve O'Connell
Florence Ann Romano and Sean Thomas Charles Riffenburg and Saren Nofs-Snyder 2

Finally, Ibsen’s hint of incest in this play could tantalize our modern audience, but even that scandalous element becomes diffused when our tragic heroine, Mrs. Helen Alving (Saren Nofs-Snyder) considers the potential of marriage between her son Oswald to her maid, his secret half-sister, Regina (Florence Ann Romano). For her, it would be no worse than any everyday match between first cousins in rural Norway.

So much for sexual shock and awe.  So the question needs to be asked: what remains now to draw audiences to this work again? When all else fails, try the relationships. There is a time to produce an elegant tribute to an old master and then there’s a time to present the play for what it is—melodrama. Sophisticated, psychologically adept and intellectually stimulating melodrama, but melodrama nevertheless—we have come to observe these birds in order to learn the heart’s filthy lesson.

Sadly, the central relationship in this play between Mrs. Alving and Reverend Manders just doesn’t have the chemistry to propel this play’s excessive exposition forward. O’Connell knows how to strike Manders’ stiff, controlling and judgmental pose but one finds, through the bulk of the play, not enough contrasting nuance within his performance as to self-doubt within the good reverend over the validity of his own views.

Mrs. Alving has grown in her intellectual thinking since the first day she ran, a shocked and impressionable newlywed, from her perverse husband’s side to Reverend Manders for succor and advice. But Manders’ parochial views on sexuality, family and duty seem to have frozen him in time. Any possible romance between them becomes thwarted by a horrible lack of timing. Yet in some ways this play is about a little revolution in the reverend’s perspective—brought on by Mrs. Alving’s disabuse of his man-crush on her husband. It’s a change in Manders that is too little, too late for Mrs. Charles Riffenburg and Saren Nofs-Snyder Alving to reap anything like the hope of love in her life. I am afraid that O’Connell’s final reveal of Manders’ feelings for Mrs. Alving, in the second half of this one-act, is also too little, too late. Underneath the stiff control that the Reverend demonstrates and advocates, the audience still must see some turmoil of the uncertain man.

Likewise, Riffenburg’s performance of Oswald seems to lack the anxiety of yearning, love-deprived, and blighted youth. Even in Ibsen’s time, the stereotype of the bohemian artist dying from an unnamable, congenital disease was, unfortunately, a cliché, and now it is even more so. Riffenburg has the burden of making this cliché breathe with anxious life, but unfortunately his performance just doesn’t reach the mark. Here is a role rich in longing—longing for life, for freedom, for truth, beauty and, most of all, the sun. “The bad boy is back,” Oswald announces to Reverend Manders as he makes his first entrance. But Oswald is also the SAD boy and by that I mean Seasonal Affective Disorder. Ibsen is so psychologically correct in assigning this condition at a powerful metaphorical place in this drama—unnamed in his own time, much like Oswald’s congenital illness. Despite his youth, Ozzie is resolutely certain about his own views on life in his verbal joust with Reverend Manders. But his uncertainty lies in whether he was ever loved, either by his perverse father or his duty-bound mother, and that should visibly inform his drive for life at its premature end.

That leaves Nofs-Snyder to carry this shows dilemmas of shame, guilt and judgment—especially everyone’s judgment on her choices and behavior under exacting marital conditions. We are fortunate to have a grand actress in this role. Her portrayal of Mrs. Alving virtually writhes with adamant conviction, disgraced and humiliated position, loss of real love or understanding, and total loss of control over the essential affairs and relationships in her life. Dressed in a striking brocaded red gown (Sarah Putnam, costume design), Mrs. Alving comes across as the queen bee of this production—and a brilliant, poor, haunted queen bee she is.

As for the supporting roles, Sean Thomas as Jakkob Engstrand and Florence Ann Romano as Regina Engstrand make a great sleazy father and gold-digging daughter duo. Thomas’ Engstrand is a delightfully cunning Norwegian step-n-fetchit. Who knew that such hackneyed roles were also written for white people?

The production values for this black box theater offer highly imaginative, cunningly wrought and absolutely laudable effects. Anders Jacobson’s scenic design, Katy Peterson’s lighting, and Lewis Miller’s sound design produce an absolute feast for eye and ear. They, like the set, are a house on fire.

Boho Theatre’s production is so lovely to look at, so correct in execution—but still, how badly it needs a filthy, filthy heart.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
 
 

Steve O'Connell and Saren Nofs-Snyder

all photos courtesy of Brandon Dahlquist

 

Continue reading