Article by Cori Wilbur
March 26, 2019
The spotlight beamed down on the El Portal Theater’s stage and there stood the horribly disfigured John Merrick, better known as “The Elephant Man.” All modern frills were stripped away and my imagination was fully engaged.
Director Robyn Cohen is a theatrical architect: she can layout a production with such precision that the audience truly believes what they are seeing. The way she treats theater with such affection and care comes across in any production she touches. Part of her magnetism is founded on the ability to gain the audience’s trust.
When recreating The Elephant Man, Cohen made sure to preserve Bernard Pomerance’s original intent while simultaneously springboarding its message into the present day. The Thursday Night Theatre Club’s initial decision to bring this accoladed work to Los Angeles was conceived by its star, Tom Vitorino. Vitorino, who is absolutely sensational as John Merrick, felt the play’s theme of tolerance and understanding is an important one to emphasize in today’s climate.
Often times, people deemed outside of the confines of normalcy utilize a sense of humor as a coping mechanism. Even more frequently, people are surprised when someone who has been dealt a bad hand, such as Merrick, can find a sense of joy or laughter. I found myself in the shoes of one of Merrick’s contemporaries this night. So when a moment of tension broke into one of Merrick’s comical quips, I found myself in a state of shock. At first, laughing almost felt wrong. As a society, we are constantly being confronted with our own biases and I soon realized the folly of my own preconceptions.
No alterations were made to the original script and Cohen stayed true to key elements of the first Broadway production. Same as was in the original, the characters of Ross and Bishop Howe are both portrayed by the same actor (Jon Sperry) to symbolize the dichotomy of cruelty and kindness. Another such feature was that no makeup or special effects are used for the part of Merrick. His deformity is solely reliant on Vitorino’s ability to physically contort himself in a way as to stimulate the audience’s imagination. I saw, before me, a man of terrible malformation.
What is particularly genius about the way Cohen crafts this staging is her decision to illuminate the scene transitions as part of the narrative, as opposed to disguising them in the darkness. Her objective is to emphasize shifts within the characters’ interactions to make the play’s progression as seamless as possible. The stage changes in a way to parallel Merrick’s transformation from social pariah to scientific enigma. Instrumental in the increasing acceptance of Merrick is his relationship with Mrs. Kendal, played by the striking talent of Alice L. Walker. The beautiful and sharp-witted Mrs. Kendal is a strong, feminine counterbalance to the male leads.
But the story of the Elephant Man is just as much Frederick Treves’ as it is John Merrick’s. John Ralston Craig as Treves, a budding doctor who brings Merrick to the London Hospital, is one of those rare portrayals where you cannot tell where the actor ends and the character begins. His ability to bring such a natural blend of sternness and sensitivity to the role of Treves solidified Cohen’s vision even further. Truly the entire cast and crew is the finishing touch on a superb vision.
Upon speaking with Vitorino post performance, he advocated for the younger crowd to see this play because it is a reminder to be more compassionate, something we seem to have all but forgotten how to do. He maintained that as long as one person took away a valuable lesson from the play, the night was a success. I can confirm, it was.
Running April 4 through the 14 at the El Portal Theater in North Hollywood, visit http://www.elportaltheatre.com/elephantman.html to purchase your tickets.