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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

The Elephant Man
Zao Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Rose and Walsh and Newsies

Tyler Boettcher and Kellen Garner
Photo by Sarah Rodgers
Bernard Pomerance's play The Elephant Man is an intriguing and insightful drama that uses the suffering that John Merrick, dubbed "the elephant man" due to his enlarged head and other physical deformities, endured to show both the inhumanity of the world and the belief that true beauty is anything but skin deep. Zao Theatre's smartly cast production features a beautiful performance by Kellen Garner as Merrick.

Set in the late nineteenth century, over a series of short introductory scenes we learn how the deformed Merrick's only chance of survival was to appear as an oddity in the freak shows of London. However, while it offered a respite from the horrors of the workhouse, Merrick was basically a slave working for little money, and his enlarged head, malformed limbs, and twisted body meant he was the recipient of constant stares, screams, and physical abuse. Through a chance meeting with Dr. Frederick Treves, a surgeon who works at London Hospital, he is provided with a home and a place to lead as normal a life as possible. However, Merrick is told that for his own good he must remain in his room and stay within the confines of the hospital, which makes him still a prisoner.

Treves asks Mrs. Kendal, an actress, to meet Merrick in hopes of overcoming the continual disgust that the majority of the people at the hospital exhibit when encountering him, thinking that her acting skills will mask her actual fright. Kendal is taken by the charming and intelligent Merrick and introduces him to a steady stream of powerful and wealthy members of London's upper class. But, are Treves, his constituents and Kendal, along with the attention his presence receives which helps the hospital gain donations, helping John or simply using him to advance their own reputations? And are the people who parade in to see him, and who see in Merrick the things they would like to see in themselves, any different than those who paid to see him in the freak shows?

Pomerance paints an intriguing picture of Merrick, and the play is an interesting study of how society treats those who are different. While the piece has a few fantasy and dream vignettes that help us get inside Merrick's head, as well as a subplot concerning a financial scandal at the hospital that seems a bit odd, the majority of the play is a straightforward drama that portrays the last four years of Merrick's life when he lived at the hospital.

Kellen Garner is simply magnificent as Merrick in a touching, charming, gentle, honest and optimistic performance. He never evokes pity as this lonely, deformed creature, and he beautifully manages to show the compassion that Merrick had for those around him. The play's standard theatrical conceit is to have the actor who plays Merrick appear with no makeup or special effects that evoke the way Merrick actually looked but to have the actor simply use their body language, speech pattern, and body movement, along with the audience's imagination, to evoke Merrick's deformities on stage. Garner succeeds exceptionally.

Tyler Boettcher does well as the doctor who gives Merrick a new chance at life. Pomerance attempts to add some drama to the character, and Boettcher injects a good sense of rationality and compassion into Treves, but it's a mostly underwritten role. Diane Senffner instills Mrs. Kendal with a sense of humor and style, along with a huge amount of sensitivity, as the only person who sees Merrick as an equal and not an oddity. Senffner also makes us see the compassion and deep connection her character has with Merrick.

In smaller parts, Joe Musil, Kevin Tye, Clayton Marlowe and Jeff Montgomery create a range of characters, both good and bad, with realism and flare. Brianne Gobeski, Kayla Cook, and Kelly Fulcher imaginatively play the trio of "pinheads," another side show oddity, who factor into Merrick's life and dreams.

Director Mickey Bryce, who also created the simple yet effective set design, does a good job of ensuring that the humor in the piece helps offset the horrors of Merrick's predicament. His decision to show us a few archive photographs of the way Merrick really looked, as images projected on the sides of the stage, allows us to see how excellent Garner's portrayal is. He incorporates the oddities of Merrick's fellow freaks and some dream elements to evoke a surreal, fantasy world that helps to counter the sullen and somber moments. I only wish the pace were a bit tighter and quicker and a few of the moody cello instrumental pieces, which nicely set the tone, were slightly shorter. Diana Grubb's costumes are exquisite period pieces and Senffner's dialect work with the entire cast delivers a range of effective English accents.

The Elephant Man is a beautiful play about what constitutes beauty and normalcy and while the outcome is ultimately sad, it makes for a rich journey to the past. Also, the simple lessons about trust and truth that Merrick lived by are ones that we could all learn from.

Zao Theatre's The Elephant Man, through September 8, 2018, at Centerstage Church, 550 South Ironwood Drive, Apache Junction AZ. You can get information and tickets by visiting Tickets can also be ordered by calling 602-320-3275.

Director / Set Design: Mickey Bryce
Costumer Director: Diana Grubb
Lighting Operator: Sharyn Sheffer
Sound Effects: Bill Wiatr
Sound Operator: Bill Williamsen
Stage Manager: Doug Ulmer

Dr. Frederick Treves: Tyler Boettcher
John Merrick: Kellen Garner
Mrs. (Madge) Kendal: Diane Senffner
Carr Gomm: Joe Musil
Ross: Kevin Tye
Bishop Walsham How: Clayton Marlowe
Manager of the Pinheads, London Police Officer: Jeff Montgomery
Pinhead: Brianne Gobeski
Pinhead: Kayla Cook
Pinhead/ The Duchess: Kelly Fulcher
Belgian Police Officer/ Snork, a porter: Sergio Noriega
Will, a porter: Jayden Nguyen
Lord John / Boat Conductor: Tom Endicott
Nurse, Miss Sandwich: Anna Moore
The Countess: Terri Parker
Princess Alexandria: Jenae Hirsch
Cellist: Patty Burton

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