When most people hear the title The Elephant Man, they likely recall David Lynch’s 1980 film, which received 8 Academy Award nominations, including one for John Hurt’s unforgettable leading performance. 

Hurt, of course, played John Merrick, a character based on the real life 19th Century Englishman Joseph Merrick, so deformed by a congenital defect that he was forced to earn his living as a carnival freak, until physician Frederick Treves rescued him and gave him living quarters at his London hospital.  Merrick’s plight so touched the hearts of Londoners that enough money was donated for Merrick never again to worry about where his next meal was coming from. Becoming quite the celebrity, Merrick was befriended by British royalty and stage star Mrs. Fanny Kemble.  

A year before Lynch’s film, Bernard Pomerance’s play of the same name opened on Broadway, telling basically the same story but in a stylistically quite different way. Unlike the movie’s Merrick, which hid Hurt under a prosthetic head, the play’s Elephant Man is performed without any special makeup, Merrick’s deformity suggested by facial and bodily contortions.  The conceit allows the audience to see past Merrick’s repulsive exterior into the heart of the man. Both Philip Anglim (in the Broadway original) and Billy Crudup (in the 2002 revival) were nominated for the Tony for their work in this most challenging of roles.

Actors Co-op favorite Ronnie Steadman could easily find himself in a similar position (albeit for Los Angeles-based awards) for his superb work in the Co-op’s good-as-it-gets Elephant Man revival, under the inspired direction of Stephen Rothman.

Steadman is that most unusual of actors, like Crudup a leading man who goes after character roles and nails them to a T. Previously, Steadman played against type as the nerdiest of nerds in Larry Shue’s The Nerd.  As comedically inspired as was Steadman’s Nerd, the actor tops himself in an unforgettable performance here as Merrick. When we see Steadman’s smile for the first time at curtain call, the effect is startling, so completely has he transformed himself into the Elephant Man, and not simply physically.  Behind Steadman’s haunted eyes, and despite his slurred speech, we are given a glimpse into a man’s soul.

A previous local production of The Elephant Man was thrown off balance by an inadequate performance by the actor portraying Treves. Not so here. Antaeus company member Billy Mendieta does memorable work as the physician who gave Merrick a second chance at life, but on Treves’ own terms.  Mendieta shows us both the physician’s arrogance and his doubts, his warmth, and the cold-hearted way in which he made decisions for Merrick’s “own good.”

It is always a pleasure to see the work of a director with a vision, a description that is particularly apt here. Rothman, working with Broadway and Emmy-winning set designer David Potts, surrounds the audience with burlap tenting and carnival lights, making us part of the side show where Treves first discovered Merrick.  The seven-actor ensemble who support Steadman and Mendieta begin the play seated among the audience, further involving and implicating us in Merrick’s story.

Each supporting actor assumes multiple parts, with the largest (and standout) role going to Co-op regular Maria Lee (formerly Lay) as Mrs. Kendall, the fictionalized Mrs. Fanny Kemble. With her “veddy veddy” upper class British accent and her air of haughty glamour, Lee is the 19th Century equivalent of a 1940s Hollywood star, all the while showing us the actress’s warmth and her generous heart.

Lee doubles delightfully as one of a pair of carnival “Pinheads,” her fellow Pinhead performed with equal glee by Victoria Hoffman, who also does fine work as Miss Sandwich, a nurse who had no problem caring for African lepers, yet runs in horror from at her first glimpse of Merrick. Hoffman is also (doubly) royal as a Countess with quite the laugh and as Princess Alexandra.

Ovation winner Don Robb underplays beautifully as the venal freak show manager Ross, as well as portraying Bishop How (who spars with Treves over science vs. religion) and an attendant named Snork.  Excellent work is also done by Stephen Folds, Steve Gustafson, and Brandon Massey in a variety of roles.

James Moody’s lighting design beautifully complements Potts’ set, and Naila Aladdin Sanders’ fine costumes run the gamut from elegant 19th Century menswear to the gowns of British noblewomen to an especially delightful pair of “Pinhead” costumes (complete with pointed straw headdresses).

Joe Cerqua has composed wonderful mood-heightening original background music and created an outstanding sound design which includes street noises, carnival sounds, rain, and various offstage voices.

The Elephant Man is the perfect opener for the Co-op’s 17th Anniversary “Season Of Transformation.”  With Steadman transforming himself into the hideously deformed John Merrick, and Merrick himself undergoing a transformation from animal to man, the audience too is likely to be transformed by Pomerance’s touching and inspiring tale, rendered in exquisite fashion by Hollywood’s justly award-winning Actors Co-op.

Actors Co-op, Crossley Theatre, 1760 N. Gower Street, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
October 4, 2008
Photos: Lindsay Schnebly

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