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The Elephant Man

by Elyse Sommer

Sometimes I think my head is so big because it is so full of dreams. . . do you know what happens when dreams cannot get out?
--- John Merrick
Bernard Pomerance's play based on the true life story of John Merrick, a deformed young man who finds hope for a more dignified life after a youth spent as a freak show attraction, was a Tony-award winning Broadway hit. It opened at the Booth Theatre in 1979 and stayed into 1980, for a total of 916 performances. Though the continued popularity of the video version of the 1980 David Lynch film (an original script, not based on the play) has kept Merrick's legend alive this revival will probably not take quite that long to reach its potential audience. That audience, especially anyone too young have seen the original and with an interest in old-fashioned dramas built around gripping and emotionally engaging characters, is in for a stylishly staged, superbly acted evening of theater.

Sean Mathias, who only recently gave us another revival, Dance of Death, has stayed true to the playwright's introductory notes in which he envisions the actor playing Merrick conveying his physical deformity with his voice and body language rather than extreme makeup or speech gimmicks. If my memory of the original production serves me, the original Merrick (Philip Anglim) used less extreme movements and ticks than the current star, Billy Crudup (pronounced Crude Up). Yet, under the director's guidance Crudup successfully fulfills Pomerance's aim. His awkward gait and the incredibly controlled poses are as effective as any artificial humps and bumps and other grotesqueries. His speech, though a singsong slur, is never incomprehensible.

Unlikely as it may seem for this character, during his conversations with Mrs. Kendal (Kate Burton) he erupts into what can only be described as charm (its credibility abetted by a stylish trim haircut and undulating torso). The wordless final moments round out a powerful sad and occasionally humorous portrayal of a man whose horrible personal plight mirrors the virtues and vices of the "normal " society around him

In a season notable for some visually stunning productions Off and On Broadway the stage elements brought to this productions more than hold their own. Most of the twenty-one scenes take place in the London hospital to which the English gentleman-doctor, Frederick Treves (Rupert Graves), brings Merrick after discovering him at a carnival freak show. However, Mathias has overlaid everything with the aura of the carnival which includes the giant elephant-gray block letters at the edge of the stage which are hoisted up like a carnival tent as the show begins.

Santo Loquasto's set is spare and sleek. There are mirrors to echo the text's overriding metaphor and curtains which, amongst other uses, project the ensemble as shadow figures from the Victorian society whose rules are not as Treves tells Merrick "for our own good. " The titles projected at the beginning of each scene are not new to this production, however, having various ensemble members read them Greek chorus style, marries Victorian drama with Greek tragedy. Dramatic as this is, it tends to also project a sense of style above all. The same might be said of the dominating model church Merrick builds. It looks as if it's made of glass or plastic, hardly a material used by an amateur artist, making the whole thing more a glossy presence than a means to clarify the playwright's religious allusions.

While Merrick's story provides the impetus for the play it is the impact of Merrick on the people who came in contact with him that give the evening its moral and dramatic impact. Fortunately, the two people most affected, Dr. Treves and the socially well connected actress, Mrs. Kendal, simply couldn't be better.

In a role that calls on him to be a one-man stand-in for the hypocrisy of Victorian society, Rupert Graves handily sidesteps the danger of being a type rather than an individual who changes from self-assurance to pained disillusionment. Kate Burton, most recently that discontented Hedda Gabler, brings warmth and humor to her scenes with Merrick. When, in response to Merrick's plaintive statement that he has never seen a woman's body, she provides him with that opportunity, her flash of nudity is not the least bit gratuitous. Merrick's grateful "It is the most beautiful sight I have seen. Ever". is quite touching. On the other hand, Treves' intrusion on this scene and his outraged anger are not a particularly well thought out part of the play, even though Ms. Burton does wonderful double duty as a figure in Treves' ensuing role reversing nightmare. (She does as well as in another bit as one of the carnival pinheads).

The supporting cast is also well chosen, with especially good work from Jack Gilpin, James Riordan and Christopher Duva. Since the cello music has been replaced by the noted composer Philip Glass, it should be mentioned that his recorded score is an enhancement. So much so, that one could well conceive a chamber opera on the music horizon (A recent Fringe Festival spoof did feature an Elephant Man: The Musical ).

Does The Elephant Man, twenty-plus years later have the earmarks of a classic — in other words, a memorably great play? I think "great " would be an elephantine adjective. It is, however, good theater. The best proof came from the audience which was the most attentive, blessedly free of coughers and seat jigglers, I've encountered all season.

Reviews of other plays directed by Sean Mathias:
Dance of Death
For a review of an Off-Broadway revival of the play several seasons ago, go here. will direct.
To check out the film version, go here: NTSC format . . .  DVD


Written by Bernard Pomerance
Directed by Sean Mathias,
Cast: Rupert Graves (Frederick Treves), Edmond Genest (Carr Gomm and Belgian Policeman), Jack Gilpin (Ross and Bishop Walsham How), Billy Crudup (John Merrick), Nick Toren (London Policeman), James Riordan (Pinhead Manager, London Policeman, Will and Lord John), Kate Burton (Pinhead and Mrs. Kendal), Jenna Stern (Pinhead, Miss Sandwich, Duchess and Princess Alexandra), Lynn Wright (Pinhead), Christopher Duva (Belgian Policeman, Conductor, Snork and Countess).
Set and Costume Design: Santo Loquasto
Lighting Design: James Ingalls
Sound Design: David Shapiro
Original music by Philip Glass
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes, without intermission.
Royale, 242 W. 45th St. (Broadway/8th Av), 239-6200
T ue - Sat at 8pm; Sat at 2pm; Sun at 3pm, 7:30pm; starting May 7:Tue - Sat at 8pm; Wed & Sat at 2pm; Sun at 3pm.-- $50 - $75.
From 3/26/02; opening 4/14/02. Closing 6/09/02
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on performance
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