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'The Elephant Man' at El Portal Theatre

Tom Vitorino and John Ralston Craig | Jason Ross Levy

Based on a true story, The Elephant Man, directed by Robyn Cohen, follows the life of Joseph Merrick, a man who began developing societally deemed grotesque deformities at the age of 5 due to a rare condition called Proteus Syndrome. The play, written by Bernard Pomerance, begins with Merrick (Tom Vitorino) "performing" as a human oddity spectacle in 1884 England. He is soon rescued from the abusive humiliation the traveling circus had been subjecting him to by a doctor named Frederick Treves (the solid, believable John Ralston Craig). Dr. Treves takes Merrick in to live at the London Hospital where he works. In the hospital, Merrick is taunted by workers and shrieked at by passers-by. These taunters and shriekers are immediately punished and scolded by Dr. Treves, in an effort to set an example for the rest of the hospital staff and inhabitants, and to teach Merrick that, in the hospital, he can expect to be treated with respect.

Slowly, Merrick transforms from a feared foreign creature to a nobleman of sorts. English people of stature begin to take interest in Merrick. He is graced by the presence of such visitors as famous actresses, priests, and royalty. He forms a particularly special bond with Mrs. Kendal (Alice L. Walker), a smart, curious actress who becomes enamored with Merrick's mind and gentle spirit.

Merrick has the unique gift of being able to embody both the most notable and subtle traits of whomever he's speaking to, as if to hold up a mirror to each of his subjects (he's checking for their breath–just as he suggested Romeo should have done had he truly loved Juliet).

As his relationships strengthen, as his place in society begins to resemble something that could almost be mistaken for normalcy, his condition worsens.

He dies, at home, in his hospital room. He was 27 years old.

The Elephant Man is a story about the deeply rooted fear people experience upon being introduced to something, or someone, different, and how desperately people want to find themselves in others in an effort to feel not so alone.

The choice to keep Vitorino bare of prosthetics was both a directorial choice I very much enjoyed and a testament to Vitorino's physical acting capabilities. Vitorino's character voice, however, came off more cartoonish than heartbreaking. It compromised much of the script's more intimate moments. The vocal affectation also, at times, made the dialogue difficult to understand.

The moment Walker first graced the stage the audience collectively perked up. And not simply because, at the time of her entrance, the show is starving for a greater female presence. The actress and character alike are poised, graceful, charismatic. We in the audience hung on her every word. Walker, in addition to being a skilled actress, is a skilled listener. Every bit of dialogue she listened to felt heavier because of how finely she was tuned in.

The sparse set and costumes are reflective of the time period, Victorian England. The set pieces looked small and swallowed up by the size of the stage the show is presented on. A smaller space would have suited the piece better, both for staging purposes and to take in the careful facial expressions of Vitorino.

The Elephant Man is showing April 3 - 14 at El Portal Theatre.


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