This season, the last at their Race street location, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company is offering more classics than Shakespeare, selecting stories that MUST be heard to appreciate the full scope of the human condition.
In the case of The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance, not only is the story important, but the actor portraying the elephant man is a sight to behold. His transformation into John Merrick is a must see, an instant Cincinnati classic.
The play is the story of a grossly deformed man, whose plight is discovered by Dr. Treves, garnering Merrick a home for life, rescuing him out of the gritty, traveling, abusive side show but unwittingly tossing him into another arena for gawkers: London society. This isn’t the real tragedy, though. Neither Treves, nor society, nor his own physical body allow for Merrick to live the life he truly wants.
Davies stands before the crowd, in front of a projection of the real John Merrick, and slowly, one deformity at a time, becomes Merrick. Davies is a master of physical acting throughout the show, holding these demanding contortions. But Merrick is not a man to be feared; the body is only an illusion. We see through the physical and appreciate his wit, wisdom, and love of beauty. He yearns to be free of the physical yoke, yet spiritual in his quest for understanding.
We feel for Merrick, not just pity him, but ride the waves of his new found ability to learn, questioning the cosmos, what it means to be human. We become angry at his savior, Treves, because he stops Merrick’s quest to be human, isolating him once again. Dr. Treves is played with strength and conflict by Brent Vimtrup, a man whose singular pursuit of science often leaves him confused or brazen.
Kelly Mengelkoch gives us a complicated Mrs. Kendal. She captures the grand dame, perhaps conjuring a young Maggie Smith, as well as the showgirl, student, and friend of Merrick. Mrs. Kendal makes a sacrifice in this play that was the subject of at least one discussion overheard after the show.
The play is beautifully directed by Phillips, moving along smoothly, and surprisingly quickly. He marries theatre and slide show, entrances and exits, guiding our focus magically.
The set is an operating theatre, with an upper balcony where people can study the specimens below. There are stage seats you can pre-order, where eight members of the audience don lab coats and appear as students, silently watching the proceedings. One of these lucky people reported how he became immersed in the play as he was greeted by an “orderly,” escorted backstage to select a coat, and directed to a chair. The view from stage was great he said, with only a small issue with some sightlines, but closer than he’s ever been to the amazing performances at CSC. This adds another slight of hand: the audience is watching the audience watching the show.
The scenery (Shannon Moore) and lighting (Justen N. Locke) immediately sets the mood of a foggy long-ago London. The curtains and projections (Nathan Davis) slide, appear and disappear, always changing the illusion of the set. Abbi Howson’s costumes beautifully evoke the era with color and fit.
Other performers include the likable Billy Chace as Carr Gomm, the amazing Miranda McGee as Miss Sandwich and Princess Alexandra, Barry Mulholland as both the rustic Ross and Bishop How, as well as Geoffrey Warren Barnes, Brandon Burton, Kyle Brumley, Vanessa Sawson, Aiden Sims and Crystian Wiltshire.
This is a beautiful story, and a memorable performance by Davies. Buy a ticket not to gawk, but to feel. You have until November 5. Go to cincyshakes.com