BOTTOM LINE: An elephant (man) never forgets (great acting).
Beginning his early adult life as a popular side show performer and later, becoming one of medical history's most fascinating case studies, Joseph Merrick, or John Merrick, The Elephant Man, became Victorian England's most unlikely of celebrities. Afflicted with a condition first diagnosed as elephantiasis and later debated as neurofibromatosis, Merrick carried the weight of his disease publicly, his spine curving awkwardly to compensate for the heaviness of his head; a curvature which in turn forced him into a limping gait. Throughout his short life, Merrick enjoyed, or rather endured, the split personality of the spectating public. One moment, he was a hero; the next a monster. This instant, a beacon of hope; the next, a symbol of endless suffering. This day, a normal everyday Joe looking for love and prosperity and next week, an animal so frightening, he is placed in a cage and observed from afar.
In Proteus Theatre Company, Basingstoke's Merrick, The Elephant Man, conceived and created by director Mary Swan and actor Saul Jaffe, Merrick's struggle is showcased by implementing the structure of the one-man (side) show, with Jaffe adopting the personas of the significants in Merrick's life including his clinical yet empathetic doctor, Frederick Treves (later knighted for his study of Merrick), Merrick's unforgivably intolerant stepmother, and others including Merrick himself.
Actor Saul Jaffe's ability to multi-task is astounding. Clearly supported by his clean stage technique and careful attention to detail, Jaffe moves seamlessly between characters, endowing each with individual behaviors and audibly distinguishable voices. To achieve such a level of believability without the benefits of elaborate costumes and make-up is remarkable. Jaffe appears to embrace the daunting task of portraying a severely disfigured individual sans visible accouterments and in doing so, surprises the audience with his sincere and deceptively effortless characterization of Joseph Merrick.
Unfortunately, exceptional acting does not an extraordinary show make. Whether it is a question of the script's structure or the guidance of the director, the production itself comes across as contrived, indulgent and excessive. Although clever in concept, it appears as if the function of some of the show's more abstract elements is more to highlight the wit of the creative team rather than illuminate the textually dramatic points of interest. An ideal example to illustrate this point is the swing suspended centerstage. Even Jaffe himself appears unable to reconcile this object's presence onstage. True, an artistically adventurous audience will intellectually appreciate such an effect, but I imagine this same audience might be a bit put-off by its pretension.
(Proteus Theatre Company, Basingstoke's production of Merrick, The Elephant Man continues in Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters through Sunday, December 13th. Performance schedule is Tuesday at 7:30pm; Wednesday-Friday at 8:30pm; Saturday at 2:30pm and 8:30pm; and Sunday at 3:30pm and 7:30pm. Tickets are $25 (17.50 for 59E59 Members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at 212.279.4200 or visit ticketcentral.com. For more information, visit 59e59.org or britsoffbroadway.com.)