The San Francisco production of The Elephant Man, a play by Bernard Pomerance, is based on the real life of Joseph Carey Merrick, a 19th century British man who became a star of the traveling freak show circuit. The play is produced by Circle of Life Theater productions and staged at The Brava Theater. Philip Watt playing Merrick, joins a superb cast of local Bay area actors.Watt first appeared in a major role at age 16 in Master Harold… and the Boys. In 1996 he made his screen debut in Michael Jackson’s Stranger in Moscow. In recent years he played poet Dylan Thomas in his adaptation of the poet’s work, appearing at college campus venues and other theatrical settings in his one-man tour de force production. San Franciscans were introduced to Watt’s considerable depth as an actor in December 2013 during the media blitz of Batkid’s Caper. He played the part of “The Riddler” whose diabolical plot to ruin San Francisco was foiled to the delight of a young boy’s wish, granted by Make-A-Wish Foundation.
The play offers strong acting, wonderful period costumes, and the effective use of multi-media technologies to embellish the classic theme’s exploration of human nobility. The story is set in London during the height of Social Darwinism, a pseudo-scientific movement that held that life of humans in society was a struggle for existence ruled by “survival of the fittest.” The play raises weighty issues regarding the very meaning of human survival and ideals of so-called fitness as conventions of social and economic class, mobility, and acceptance.
This production is theater at its best and presents a timeless narrative based upon real-life events in which medical science intersects with the human condition as viewed through the lens of a grotesquely deformed Englishman who became known as “The Elephant Man” in Victorian era England. Unable to escape society’s glare, his disfigurement becomes a source of scientific inquiry. Merrick inescapably becomes the object of crude manipulation and profiteering by both the medical establishment, circus brokers, and snake-oil salesmen seeking profit from public amusement and income to be derived from his “freak-like” appearance.
Both the scientific community and those motivated by purely entrepreneurial interest sought profiteering from Merrick’s hideous looks. Blinded by greed, England’s esteemed scientific community is thwarted in their own humanity by an inability to value Merrick as fully human rather than as a mere test tube specimen. The narrative unfolds as Merrick becomes grudgingly perceived above all as a complex man, despite his wretched physical appearance and the dehumanizing stigma he endures. From Merrick’s physical deformities emerges a deeply conscious human being. With each engagement and interaction, the scenes develop, moving the audience and actors beyond Merrick’s physical dimensions to his irrepressible human qualities as he proves himself to be endowed with innate intelligence, a refined moral sensibility, and a superior grasp of aesthetic beauty of the universe.
Merrick’s internally constructed spiritual ideals of God, life, and what it means to be fully human are at the core of the play. His humanity appears to blossom as he experiences the beauty of the human female form for his first time. In this sensitively directed scene involving full frontal nudity, he’s invited to gaze upon the beautiful naked body of Mrs. Kendal, a London actress who has become enamored with his obvious brilliance and highly developed human sensibilities. Lady Kendal gently cajoles Merrick into exploring an even deeper dimension of his being; the power of visual sexual appeal and human attraction, allowing him further affirmation of his full humanity.
Produced by San Francisco’s Circle of Life Theatre company which is distinctive for being the world’s only theatre company intentionally casting and reasonably accommodating actors, singers, dancers, and theater professionals with various disabilities, cast along with those who have no physical disabilities. According to Fritz Lambandrake, founder, producer, and artistic director, the company’s mission was conceived to create a level playing field where the best talent is cast – so the best actor wins the role regardless of ability or disability status.
The Elephant Man is directed by Allison Bergman whose career spans more than two decades, covering a full spectrum of artistic and leadership roles within academia and professional theatre. A brief list of Ms. Bergman’s directorial credits include: Seminar, Arcadia, The Sunshine Boys, The Roar of the Grease Paint, A Wonderful Life, Driving Miss Daisy, Sweeny Todd, SA, and Urinetown. She is co-author of Acting the Song, Performance Skills for Musical Theater (Allworth Press, 2008).
The production is rich in its display of period custom design thanks to the experienced hand of the costume designer Callie Floor, whose considerable talents were honed with San Francisco’s Shakespeare Festival and American Conservatory Theater.
The play’s musical score was written by award-winning music educator and composer Paul Godwin, who adeptly enhances the historic period’s mood by undergirding the minimalist set’s visual screen montages and graphics displayed to contextualize the mise-en-scène and carnival atmosphere engulfing much of Merrick’s life. Lyrical melodic lines help accentuate the historical narrative’s backdrop. London.
The cast of Elephant Man seems to gel into a harmonic working unit of a dozen or so actors, each presenting strong portrayals of the characters that interplay to create the wretched life of Joseph Merrick.
The Elephant Man has appeared in other venues and with different iterations. Two-time Academy Award nominee Bradley Cooper starred as Joseph Merrick on Broadway during the 2014/2015 season. The Pomerance script has many important ideas and bristles with deliberate intensity. It’s a play well worth seeing. It’s at Brava Theater in San Francisco’s Mission District, through May 17th.
©D-Day Media Group Inc. 2015