Theatre Review: “The Elephant Man” at Indianapolis Civic

LtoR - Carrie Bennett Fedor, Joshua Ramsey, Chris Goldfarb

Last Sunday afternoon I met my friend Chris and his family on the west side of Indianapolis at the “hybrid” (volunteer actors/paid designers) Indianapolis Civic Theatre to see “The Elephant Man.”  It was written by Bernard Pomerance and directed at Indy Civic by Robert J. Sorbera.

While I was waiting for my group, local actress Erin Cohenour came up to say hello.  She told me that “Elephant Man” was the very first show she had ever acted in.  “I was fourteen years old,” she said.  “I was a nurse.  This is a sad one, Hope.  Get ready to cry.”

Chris told me after we had settled into our seats that he wasn’t sure he would be able to sit through the whole play because the movie had been so unbearably sad.

So I was all set to cry, but…

….my eyes stayed dry the whole time.  For me, this show was emotionally flat. However, it was also fascinating.  It didn’t give me catharsis, but I didn’t mind because it did give me a lot of good food for thought about how much we humans need to interact with each other in order to be at our best.  Also about how people project themselves – and blind themselves – based on the appearances of others.  Really, all physical appearance is an illusion (the play told me.)  If we love someone, we are not fooled by the illusion of their appearance, but it is hard to get past illusion and truly love.

The show also gave me food for thought about how much science and religion complement each other, even when they seem to be at war.  Both are mysterious.  Both can be sources of blame and comfort. 

The show also gave me food for thought about what makes someone “normal” and what “grace” means.

The most fascinating aspect of the show, though, is Chris Goldfarb’s very convincing, yet accessible, portrayal of the title character, who lived in England from 1862-1890 and whose real name was John Merrick.  Early on in the show, the doctor that befriends him, Dr. Frederick Treves (played by Joshua Ramsey), gives a lecture about him in hopes of raising money to help with his care.  Dr. Treves shows and discusses slides of the real John Merrick naked, while behind a scrim a nearly naked Chris Goldfarb transforms himself into the character limb by limb “simply” by the way he holds and moves his body.  No special make-up or appendages are used, and yet by the time the lecture is over, it is easy to believe that the man on the stage is the same grotesquely deformed man in the photos.

The way Goldfarb speaks is brilliant, too: not as difficult to understand as apparently the real John Merrick was, but different enough to give us an understanding of how different John was from the people around him.  Goldfarb’s consistency in terms of the clicks, swallows, and drawn-out syllables that he uses to portray John’s vocal mannerisms is amazing, especially since he also manages to convey John’s intelligence, humor, and vulnerability at the same time.

The supporting actors are all good and the design elements are all treats – more about each of them in a moment – but I can not say strongly enough how fascinating it was to watch and listen to Chris Goldfarb’s portrayal of this unique individual from history.  That alone is worth the price of admission.

The Other Characters

Daniel Scharbrough plays the despicable Ross – the man who “rescued” John Merrick from where he had been dumped as a child.  Before Dr. Treves came along, Ross made money by showing John off as a freak in carnivals.  His narrow-mindedness and lack of compassion is mind-boggling.

Joshua Ramsey, as I mentioned before, plays the earnest and handsome young Dr. Frederick Treves, a rising star in the medical community who is, in contrast to Ross, filled with compassion.  However, he also has a few blind spots of his own.

Carrie Bennett Fedor plays a beautiful and pragmatic actress, Mrs. Kendal.  Dr. Treves convinces her to spend time with John Merrick.  Dr. Treves believes that friendship with a woman will help John feel more normal.  As it happens, there is nothing abnormal about John’s ability to feel desire for a woman, especially for a woman who is as pretty and kind as Mrs. Kendal and who seems to like him for himself.

Gerard Pauwels is Carr Gomm, the hospital administrator who is basically sympathetic but also very aware of John Merrick’s ability to help the hospital’s profit margin.

All of these actors, plus Zachary Joyce, David Pittman, Molly Tucker, and Danna Sheridan, all play more than one character in the story of the final six years of John Merrick’s life.  The other characters include police officers, royalty, other side show acts, and more.  All of the actors do a good job of differentiating their characters and making them believable, even when they only have a second or two to completely change their costumes, hair, and makeup.

Robert Hay-Smith was the dialect coach for this show.  I don’t know if he worked primarily with the Elephant Man or with everyone, but everyone sounded authentic to me in terms of their class, etc.

Design Elements

I was surprised by how much the show fascinated me.  I was also surprised by how visually beautiful it was, considering it is a show about a man who was known for his shocking ugliness.   The beauty is tinged with wistfulness, but it is still beautiful.

The set, which was designed and lit by resident designer Ryan Koharchik, features a large, rounded arch flanked by two smaller ones.  It manages to be desolate or comfy, depending on where we are in the story.  When we are at the side show, with its garish, larger-than-life poster and its smoky lighting, it is depressing, but when we are at the hospital after John has made the place his home, the gaslights are cheery and the fire in the fireplace in John’s room feels even warmer because rain is pouring down outside the tall windows. Maggie E. Ward is the stage manager.  Troy Trinkle is the technical director.

Jean Engstrom’s period costume designs are lovely, especially the ladies’ richly-bustled skirts and the men’s cutaway coats.  The clown-like outfits of the “Coneheads” side show act are somehow simultaneously charming and creepy.  Debbie Williams designed the hair and make-up.

Michael J. Lasley’s sound design includes gorgeous interludes of rich cello music and dream-like chimes.

Freelance designer Dan Tracy built the special model of St. Phillip’s Church similar to the one that the real John Merrick built while he lived at the hospital.

Box Office

“The Elephant Man” runs through November 15, 2009 at the Indianapolis Civic Theatre.  If possible, I would avoid seats in the first three or four rows house right because I think the podium prevents people in those seats from seeing the slides of the real Elephant Man when Dr. Treves is lecturing.  The people in those seats on Sunday afternoon seemed to be craning their necks during that portion of the show.  Otherwise, any seat is a good one, I think.  Please call 317-923-4597 to make a reservation for this surprisingly beautiful and fascinating show.

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com and @IndyTheatre on Twitter.

2 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “The Elephant Man” at Indianapolis Civic”

  1. Very good review, Hope. I had a similar reaction to the show, having seen it on it’s second performance night.

    I thought the set was magnificent and the staging worked very, very well. The actors all did a great job, too – especially Chris Goldfarb. Additionally – his scenes with Carrie Fedor were well done and even moving at times. And Dan Scharbrough is always great.

    But I too was left flat and it was not until the following morning that I realized why. I believe the reason was that there was very little emotional connection between Goldfarb’s Merrick and Josh Ramsey’s Treves. Treves has quite a few scenes with Merrick that are supposed to build their relationship (in my opinion) but Ramsey seems to have been directed (or has chosen) to play the English doctor with typical Brit restraint. I understand the choice – I do not believe it works.

    A good part of the show deals with how Merrick effected so many people in such a surprising way. This is true of how he effected Treves as well. By not creating some emotional tension between the two characters, the show leaves a flat feeling, even through Merrick’s death. Treve’s long monologue – “Corsets, what about corsets?” has no background of emotional to fall against and therefore lies flat. It is a major oversight.

    This is not to say the Josh Ramsey doesn’t do a good job with the character – I just cannot help but think that the audience was not given a full measure of emotional content and it had it’s flattening effect.

    I know this play well, I played Treves in a production in 2003.

  2. Thanks very much, Ken. I really appreciate your taking the time to write and share these comments here on my blog.

    I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how important relationships and interactions are in a show. I think I used to think that an actor independently decides how she (or he) is going to portray her character while saying her lines as written and remembering her blocking, and that’s it. But that is really only the beginning of an actor’s job, isn’t it.

    And how much does an actor even get to decide for herself? The buck stops with the director, I think, so of course she (or he) will have strong opinions about how each actor should behave as individual characters and how they should behave in interaction with each other.

    It boggles my mind, sometimes, how complex a feat it is to put together a live theatre show, and how much trust is involved.

    Well, anyway, thanks for your comments. I wish I had time to see “The Elephant Man” at Indy Civic again. Even with its flatness, I’m sticking with “fascinating and beautiful” as my ultimate assessment.

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