Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Elephant Man

presented by The Mechanicals Theatre Group at Pico Playhouse
review by Andrew Moore
Left to right: Daniel Jimenez, Mouchette van Helsdingen, Rachael Meyers, Bonnie Kathleen Ryan, Cynthia Beckert, Richard Gilbert-Hill, John Newman, Michael Matthys

[Disclaimer:  I am friends with Cynthia Beckert, and we perform together on the burlesque stage.  I took this assignment knowing that I could give a fair appraisal of her performance.  She would expect nothing less from me.]

The Elephant Man is not really about John Merrick.  It's about yearning, desperation, "normalcy," repression, illusion, mercy, and human connection.  It is about what truly motivates charity:  Pretension or philanthropy?  Posturing or altruism?  And finally, it is about two very different men who cling to their illusions, and who fall apart when their illusions end.  It is remarkable how stirringly Bernard Pomerance's 1979 play speaks to the world of 2012.  The Mechanicals selected this play as part of a season that promises "outside the box" interpretations of modern classics.  There is no doubt that The Elephant Man is a modern classic, and that the Mechanicals have achieved their aim with this production.

The Mechanicals thrust us immediately into the world of the play.  As the audience enters, the cast is already assembled onstage, knitting, reading, playing solitaire -- each player occupied in his or her own place on Wan Chih Haley Ho's set.  Ho has conjured a delicious environment, earthy and worn; a rich decoupage of antiques, exposed lighting and grime.  The depth of space is phenomenal, lit beautifully by Hilda Kane, and managed with ease by Director Neil Patrick Stewart.

Stewart understands theatrical mise-en-scène. We joke sometimes about how theatre is "in lifelike 3-D," but few directors actually seem to take advantage of all axes of physical stage space.  There is a dimensionality to Stewart's direction from which some other intimate theatre directors could take a lesson. In addition to the mastery of his space, Stewart has created a fertile environment for his actors, either giving them permission to dig deep into the script or else prodding them to do so.  With an ensemble like this, it is difficult to tell where the director ends and the actors begin.

Left to right: Rachael Meyers, John Newman, Bonnie Kathleen Ryan, Michael Matthys

John Newman sublimely expresses emotion beneath the emotionless mask of John Merrick.  The parroting of other characters is done in a mocking sort of way, revealing Merrick's cunning intelligence.  Newman's physicality is just enough, as it meets the audience halfway.  The playwright recommends against realistic make-up for this role, a poignantly powerful choice.  The audience is forced to confront the man while simultaneously "creating" the deformity in their imaginations.

Cynthia Beckert is simply wonderful as the actress, Mrs. Kendal.  One moment sums it up:  Before meeting Merrick for the first time, Mrs. Kendal rehearses her goodbye.  "It has been my great pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Merrick," or some such banality, repeated until she has the inflection just right.  Then she meets Merrick, and is moved by his wit and insight.  At the end of the visit, the moment happens.  She extends her hand -- Treves prompts Merrick to take her hand and shake it -- and she says her goodbye.  As I recall, it is word for word what she rehearsed with Treves, but gone is the actorly inflection, replaced by a genuine sincerity that stops time.

Michael Matthys turns in a deeply moving performance as Freddie Treves, the physician who "rescues" Merrick from the sideshow.  Matthys sneaks up on us.  The evolution of Treves from a buttoned down, conservative Brit to a thoroughly disillusioned and dismayed man on the verge of breakdown happens so naturally, so delicately, that by the time he is at wit's end, we are right there with him.  He makes a strong choice -- completely backed up by the text -- and breaks our hearts.

The ensemble in general delivers thoughtful, committed performances.  I wish I could have observed their process, because the care with which each choice has been made implies a considerable amount of time spent tearing apart Pomerance's words, sucking the marrow from the text, and dutifully crafting their roles with the same care the playwright took in crafting this elegant play. 

Some issues:  The depiction of the Pinheads is a little problematic.  It is not clear exactly who or what they are, in part because they are given a more presentational treatment than the rest of the characters.  (After Merrick begins speaking to them, this issue becomes almost entirely moot, as he feeds the audience the information we need to understand what is going on.)

There are some sight line issues with the projections.  Although this is not the end of the world with the transitional slides at the top of each scene, the projections are absolutely vital when Treves presents Merrick in his scene 3 lecture.  This is the only time the audience will see what the real Merrick looked like, which feeds our imaginations and how we perceive him for the rest of the play. 

Finally, there were two performers who remained upstage: one who wrote words on the upstage wall, and the other who sat upstage left in sunglasses and headphones.  I call them performers, but they were more like living scenery, and no indication or explanation of their purpose could be discerned.  Granted, they added considerable atmosphere to the play, but on balance they seemed to exist as a directorial whim; a theatrical affectation.  I'm not saying lose them, I'm saying throw us something, at least performer bios in the program with trumped up "character" names.  "The Scribe" and "The Anchor".  I don't know -- something.

Unless, of course, wondering about them is the point!  In which case I'd say kudos.  I am baffled by their inclusion, but I cannot imagine the play without them.

At any rate, these minor points don't detract from a production that is elegant, moving and immediate.

The Elephant Man is on display for all to see Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm; Sundays at 7:00 pm through May 15th.  Pico Playhouse is located at 10508 W Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90064 (a bit north of the 10.  Overland Avenue is the nearest cross street, to the west of Pico Playhouse.)

Tickets are $15 at www.mechanicalstheatregroup.com or $20 at the door.  Street parking is available, but get there a little early to ensure you find a spot.  The Mechanicals run a tight ship, and they do start on time.  You will not want to miss a moment.

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