Arts preview: CATCO puts The Elephant Man on display
The Victorian bell jar helps define our understanding of that time period. The glass dome served to both protect and draw attention to treasures and oddities of all sorts, often taking a central place in a home's living area.
So while CATCO's upcoming production of Bernard Pomerance's play "The Elephant Man" will feature the dress and language of the Victorian era, it is this object that will most poignantly represent both the period and the play's central theme, as John Merrick, the titular character, will appear throughout the production at center stage of a set reminiscent of a bell jar.
"Victorians had a fascination with freaks of nature, and they kept these display cases of unusual things," producing director Steven Anderson, who directs this production, said. "No matter whether as a sideshow for the lower class or the upper class, Merrick was always 'on display.'"
"We wanted to portray that aspect of Merrick always being on display," set designer Eric Barker added. "When we were discussing how I could help tell the story, we wanted to try and portray visually that concept. We came up with the idea of the Victorian bell jar.
"Once the play gets started, all the activity takes place in and around this structure."
This stage version, first performed in London in 1978 and recently revived on Broadway (with Bradley Cooper as Merrick), is based on the real-life story of Joseph Merrick (it is believed Pomerance purposefully had his characters use the wrong name), a severely deformed man in 19th century London who, with the help of patrons including Dr. Frederick Treves and Madge Kendal, moves from carnival freak show to an oddity of the British upper crust to … something more.
"He represents that which is 'other,'" Anderson said. "And these people find in him someone who represents the 'other-ness' in themselves.
"That's why the story moves us."
Treves first encounters Merrick as the property of an abusive carnival operator, beginning a relationship that will have surprising impact on both men.
Treves bargains to bring Merrick to display to his colleagues, his original motives mixed at best. What begins as a physical assessment becomes a social rehabilitation, as Treves, himself rising in social prominence through his medical work, exposes Merrick to his new social circle - the British elites.
"He thinks he's helping Merrick by bringing him to the hospital, but in so doing ends up setting up a gilded cage rather than a dirty freak show," Ben Gorman, who plays Treves, said. "But being on display in a cleaner environment, is that really any different?"
One of those elites is Mrs. Kendal, an actress who begins to discover an unexpected kinship with the deformed Merrick.
"Both [Kendall and Merrick] are judged by their outer selves, sort of two sides of the same coin," Sarah Dandridge, who plays Mrs. Kendall, explained. "He is her only true friendship. Their relationship is unique. Through her, the audience is let in to see the real John Merrick."
The real-life Merrick suffered from issues with his hips and left arm. Perhaps most notably, his head was gigantic.
At one point in the show, Merrick, played in CATCO's production by Connor McClellan, says "Sometimes I think my head is so large because it is filled with dreams."
Anderson said the role is not for the faint of heart.
"There is even a note in the script that actors with any sort of back problem should not attempt the role," he said.
The cast also includes Christopher Moore Griffin, Nick Baldasare and CATCO acting apprentices Colby Tarrh and Madison Rose Wilson.
"It's a story about being a human being," Dandridge said. "We can lose track of what's important, which is why it's important to tell this story."
Studio Two Theatre, Riffe Center
Oct. 21 through Nov. 8
77 S. High St., Downtown