Live Theatre

Looking for a little metaphor? Got just the thing for you. The Elephant Man–it’s full of ’em. Metaphors come two a penny in Bernard Pomerance’s drama of a decade ago. Hell, the hero himself is a metaphor–never mind what happens to him. In John Merrick, the hideously deformed freak-show attraction of Victorian London who enjoyed a brief fling as a cause celebre before his tragic early death, playwright Pomerance found a symbol of human mortality and aspiration.

Of course, the nice thing about metaphor is that it’s often easier to take than the truth. So instead of the ugly reality of Merrick–with his grotesquely oversized head, his twisted trunk of a right arm, and the revolting masses of flesh and funguslike growth hanging from his face and body–we are confronted with a slim, attractive, nearly nude young actor conscientiously twisting his face and form to suggest the misshapen “Elephant Man.” And instead of hard medical reality and genuine terror, we get wry and rueful paradoxes and piquant epigrams driving home the notion of Elephant Man as Everyman.

Here’s Merrick the master builder, erecting a scale model of a great church-the symbol of human ugliness creating the symbol of divine beauty. Here’s Merrick in his race against death, growing better educated and more socially graceful even as his physical state declines–he was ultimately killed by the sheer weight of his own head. Here, for that matter, is the head: oversized, Merrick half-playfully suggests, because it’s “so full of dreams.” Oh, yes, and here’s Merrick with Mrs. Kendal, the actress called in to befriend him: two actors, two illusionists, comparing how their oft-exhibited exteriors (hers on the stage, his in a freak show) conceal more than they reveal. Taking that ironic conceit to its extreme–as this play does so often with its many ironic conceits–here’s Mrs. Kendal stripping naked before Merrick, showing him her breasts and her heart with equal vulnerability, until she is interrupted by the untimely entrance of the doctor who’s taken charge of Merrick’s care.

The Elephant Man is jam-packed with patly constructed, “hey look at me” moments like these. That’s why it’s so hard to take seriously as drama or philosophy. Like Peter Shaffer’s Equus–another drama based on a true case of abnormality–The Elephant Man betrays its basic lack of compassion for the real suffering of its protagonist by its studious emphasis on life’s little lessons. Pomerance and Shaffer purported to be exploring the big questions; but, like the hypnotic lights and thudding beat of the disco music popular in the same period, these quintessentially 1970s dramas mean a whole lot less than they seem to.

Which leaves us with the issue of theatricality. Again like Equus, The Elephant Man drew attention with its appropriation of techniques pioneered in the avant-garde–specifically, in the case of The Elephant Man, the use of pantomime and visual abstraction in the character of Merrick. It was that emphasis on theatrical technique–the ability of an actor to twist his shape for an extended period, and to restrict his facial expressiveness so completely that only his voice (also restricted) could be used to convey emotion–that made The Elephant Man a coveted acting vehicle in the 70s, when performers like Philip Anglim and David Bowie played the role.

Wayne Kneeland, the lead in A.C. Thomas’s current staging of the play at the Live Theatre, is no Philip Anglim or David Bowie. He strikes a responsive chord in the audience in his first scene, when, like an artist’s model, he steps onstage clad only in a loincloth and systematically assumes the almost cubist physical distortions of Merrick; but he can’t sustain the illusion for very long. All too soon, his shoulders relax slightly toward their normal carriage, his eyebrows start twitching to drive home the meanings of his lines, and his voice reverts from its early constrictedness to a sing-songy stutter that, to these ears, sounded weirdly like Fred Gwynne as Herman Munster.

Still, as flawed as Kneeland’s performance is in this admittedly challenging role, it’s far superior to the work around it. Scott Lynch-Giddings is woefully inadequate in the key role of Frederick Treves, the anatomist whose interest in Merrick’s condition leads him to become the Elephant Man’s protector; in Lynch-Giddings’s portrayal Treves’s eventual spiritual despair comes off as mere petulance. Marcia Riegel conveys a sincere warmth as Mrs. Kendal, but her carriage and handling of language are wholly unconvincing for a theatrical celebrity of Victorian London. The rest of the cast register a negligible presence either positively or negatively; they are just background, like the rambling piano playing by Lucinda Burkhardt that functions as musical accompaniment to the play.

The clear superiority of Wayne Kneeland to the rest of the cast raises a bothersome question. In other productions I’ve seen at Live, Kneeland has played the lead–not particularly well, but better than anyone else in the company played their roles. Kneeland is a potentially fine actor–he has physical grace and a creative imagination–who seems stuck in place as the resident “star” of a small, amateurish (though ambitious) theater company. I wish he would take a risk and leave the womb, test himself against the other young actors who work at different theaters around town. Otherwise, like the Elephant Man, he’ll find himself crushed under the weight of a big head, no matter how full of dreams it might be.