Playing in Space & Time, part 1: “Elephant Man”

This past weekend, I took part as two theatre companies invited us to play with them in ways that stretched — or shrank — space and time.   Each deserves its own review, but I think they shed light on each other.

THE ELEPHANT MAN at St. John’s Cathedral

This is not a theatre.  It is the absolute opposite of a black box — a gigantic oblong carton, six or seven stories high and a city block long, empty save rows of long wooden pews clinging to the stone floor.  Halfway down its immense length, a flat wooden stage.

Merrick church

Cathedral model built by Merrick

Far above the stage’s lights, in the vast penumbra that fills this void, a figure two or three times the size of a man hangs on a flat cross.   This, and the gilded altar a half-block farther on, remind us of the building’s purpose — to tell a much older story than the one we will witness tonight.

Tonight, the actors tell of a young man, John Merrick, whose life was shaped by  a disease — and people’s reactions.  The illness twisted his bones and grew the tissues of his head, torso and arm at a cancerous rate.  Shunned, he survived by being “the Elephant Man” in Victorian freak shows.  When his agent robbed and abandoned him, a London doctor took him in.   At the hospital he had a home and education, friends and an art (model building) for four years, until he died.

Bernard Pomerance’s 1979 play (and David Lynch’s 1980 film) took   this story to the world.  But that was a generation ago, when half the people now alive were not born.  Director Patricia McKee’s staging is thus timely.

And her choice of venue pushes the subtext forward, making it larger than the play itself.

We feel Merrick (Mark McClain Wilson) suffer piercing indignities and unthinkable pain, while the massive Crucifix hovers above.  We hear character after character confess — they use Merrick as a mirror into their own souls, though few peer deeply.   And we dare not breathe as Mrs. Kendal (Maria Olsen) boldly touches Merrick’s isolated life with love.  Surrounding this small naked moment, embracing it, are acres of silent stone and stained glass, gold leaf and velvet drapes — all shaped to draw attention to Christendom’s central act, the communion of one body given to and for another.

Like the actors’ voices echoing into the vast stone chamber (a challenge not always fully met), the story’s heart resounds in this sacramental space.

This makes the play’s last scenes,  an earnest critique of patriarchy, a genuine anticlimax.  As his awareness emerges, Dr. Treves breaks apart (though William Kidd’s physicality peaked early).  The bishop (Paul Anderson) and hospital administrator (JimTaylor) remain obtuse and self-admiring, as unaware as the feckless Lord John (Michael McConnell).  The world is little changed.

McKee has chosen boldly.  The cathedral’s reverberant meanings are worth the struggle with its physical echoes.  Her wisely spare stage (a table, a desk, a bed, three chairs) is simply lit by Sergio Crego, who uses blackouts to good effect.  And it’s a fine touch to reveal some  characters early, at the candlelit altar, and let them traverse the long aisle down to the stage before entering.

Daring to throw this play into acres of space, McKee allows it to connect across millennia of time.  Yet she keeps its onstage body small and simple.   This lets us stay attached to the players and the tale, while feeling the deeper levels of our shared experience.

A further note about time:  This play was afforded a very short run — eight performances — and has closed.  But McKee is hopeful …

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