In most theaters, the play begins after the audience is seated, once the house lights have gone down, and the maestro has signaled the first downbeat.
In only one type of theater does the play begin at the door: the circus, where iridescent popcorn and hypnotizing Vaudeville music in the lobby are, in many ways, as much a part of the show as the trapeze artists and clowns.
Bernard Pomerance’s one-hit play, The Elephant Man, which will run at the Carolina Actors Studio Theatre through November 21, practically begins in the theatre’s parking lot. The audience enters a dimly lit, fogged box office, where the attendants (donning the top hats and whips of 19th century side-show workers) hand you your ticket; while we won’t reveal what that ticket actually is, suffice to say we screamed when it was handed over by its tail.Almost as much as we did when we saw our reflection in the warped mirrors that decorated the lobby.
At first, these off-stage touches seem like fun, thematic additions to a show that conveniently opened over Halloween weekend. Not until the first few scenes of the play, set at a dingy sideshow and a sterile hospital lecture hall, do we suspect we’ve been deliberately suspended in this demented, exhibitionist atmosphere. It’s a mood that enhances the story itself by reflecting the dismal experience of Joseph (or “John”) Merrick, the historic Elephant Man of Victorian England.
Of course, the entrancing quality of CAST’s The Elephant Man, directed by Michael Harris, is at its thickest in the auditorium, where a small, circular stage is encapsulated by four walls of seating and four projector screens. The screens punctuate scene changes with quotes, act as windows when they play video of rain through paned glass, and even display slides of the real-life Joseph Merrick during Dr. Frederick Treves’ (Bradley James Archer) hospital lecture, during which he circles the vulnerable Elephant Man (Hank West).
This atmospheric, claustrophobic staging, combined with the quiet (but smoldering) performances from the cast, make the audience’s transition from a Plaza-Midwood playhouse to one of Merrick’s many prisons an easy one.
The need to imagine actor Hank West (Merrick) as grizzly and deformed feels natural, in spite of the fact that his make-up is no more elaborate than the rest of the cast’s. West’s perpetually dazed and tragic expression anchors the play in its rightfully melancholy place, and breaks this demeanor only once or twice, in climactic confrontations with Treves, his doctor and patron, and his old boss, Ross (Charles LaBorde).
The rest of the cast orbits around West with equally convincing fervor, including Archer’s dynamic performance of Treves. Equally complex a character is Mrs. Kendal, played by Cynthia Farbman Harris, a firecracker of an actress whose uninhibited compassion for Merrick nearly bleeds into the erotic before Treves (and, we’re led to believe, she herself) seal it off. Harris brings spark (and a heckuva soprano from her background in opera) to the role, making Kendal’s lively, affectionate demeanor as seductive to the audience as it is to Merrick.
As the play progresses, and Merrick transitions from a feared and slandered spectacle to one with patrons that nurture his intellectual forays, the line blurs between examination and exhibitionism, between Merrick the story, and Merrick the case study. Soon, though, the scientific inquiries featured in the play become equally confusing. Treves describes London’s sudden sympathy for Merrick as a “self-mesmerized state,” and we’re compelled to wonder what actually warrants the most in-depth study: Merrick and his disease, or the effect they had on those around them.