Tara’s Informal Guide to Gainesville Theatre: “The Elephant Man”
After last month’s “Women in Jeopardy,” The Hippodrome puts a pause on comedy to tell the poignant true story of a man with an unidentified bone deformity.
This man had many different names. His real name was Joseph Merrick. In the show, people referred to him as John Merrick. Or, if we’re being insensitive, he also went by The Elephant Man.
Abandoned by his mother as a child and shunned by society, Merrick was trapped in a traveling freak show before forming a friendship with Dr. Frederick Treves. Treves provided him with a home and compassion, allowing Merrick to stay with him as long as he desired.
Although Treves’ studies could not cure him, his support allowed Merrick to be seen as more than a circus prop. Saving him in a different way, their friendship provided a window for Merrick to touch the world as a human being.
Dr. Treves strived to diminish the divide between Merrick and society through teachings and interactions with visitors.
In the second act, surrounded by guests, Merrick’s clothing mirrored the fashion of the time. However, he was the only person in the room without shoes, a detail that may symbolize how he will never fully mesh with society.
While the play shows the difficulty of being different from society, this is one of many details celebrating individuality. By separating Merrick from the formal view we have of people in the 1800s, he becomes more candid and relatable, although he’s originally perceived as a “monster.”
The theatre’s nearly in-the-round seating reinforced a lot of the show’s creative stage moments. It felt as if you are were in a circus tent at times, bathed in green light as Merrick’s captor beckoned for money in exchange for the world’s most grotesque sight. Later, Dr. Treves presents the elephant man’s anatomy as the actor playing Merrick twisted his body with each body part’s description. Suddenly, it was as if the audience was a group of budding scientists in an 1800’s classroom.
The only thing I enjoyed more than the costumes was the superb acting.
Where the story may have glazed over details for time’s sake, the actors counteracted with dimensional understanding of their characters. Withholding spoilers, although it’s already a true story and a movie, the actors present humanity from diverse angles.
Characters representing the mob mentality trigger thoughts of how awful we can be. Then, moments like watching Mrs. Kendal, a famous actress of the time, tear her façade down to bond with Merrick inspire warmth. Like any good show, most of the characters toe the line somewhere between the extremes, making it difficult to define what makes a monster.
For me, the play was part drama, part exploration of human nature, and almost part artistic study of the human body. This show is many things, carrying a different meaning for anyone who sees it.
The Elephant Man runs through May 1. Tickets can be purchased online at The Hippodrome’s website, or by calling their box office at (352) 375-4477.