The Twilight has written a score specifically for Voices Found Repertory’s production of The Elephant Man. It’s very moody atmospheric music. The stage is sparse and grey. There’s a calm solitude about the stage as the show opens.
Thorin Ketelsen is poised and compassionate in the role of Fredrick Treves—a British medical Doctor from the late 19th century who finds his life changing when he runs across a man displayed in a freak-show-style exhibition. He wishes to diagnose The Elephant Man.
The challenges in presenting Joseph Merrick on the small stage are handled quite capably by actor Zach Ursem. The script has the actor presented fully for the first time contrasted against large projections of actual historical photographs of Merrick as Ketelson plays Treves presenting his findings in vividly clinical detail.
With a strong initial connection between Ursem and the photographs of Merrick at the beginning of the drama, Ursem is free to play internal emotions against a gait and comportment sympathetic to the tragic historical figure. The deep, inner beauty and humanity of Merrick resonate through Ursem in a performance that never overreaches for a cloyingly pathetic subhuman presence, which would be the chief danger in presenting Merrick’s drama onstage. Above all, Ursem’s performance respects the underlying flaws and inner humanity of the man he’s playing.
Michael Chobanoff is cunningly human in a pair of supporting roles. He’s suitably seedy as Ron—-a street-level cockney showman who has been charged with looking after Merrick. Rob DOES have some respect for Merrick, but only as a resource. Relations between Ron and Merrick play out quite vividly in two of the more heavy emotional scenes in the drama. Chobanoff plays to a completely different temperament as a priest who makes Merrick’s acquaintance.
Haley Ebinal deftly walks a very thin line as Mrs. Kendal. Kendal is a stage actress who Treves enlists to try to connect-up with socially. Prior to the actress’ arrival, a parade of marginal characters played be other members of the ensemble have leered at Merrick or turned away in disgust. Ebinal makes no grand display of the fact that Mrs. Kendal is in no way disgusted by Merrick’s appearance. Treating Merrick as a human and a dear friend, Kendal makes for a very tender figure. Ebinal is very gracious about presenting Mrs. Kendall as a very organically interesting person who happens to be just as fascinated by Merrick as the rest of the script is.
Originally debuting in the late 1970s, playwright Bernard Pomerance’s script is smartly balanced. The sharp distillation of the life of a man born with a debilitation disorder reaches right into the heart of humanity. Themes of love, acceptance and the nature of human generosity are all viewed in strikingly simple complexity from a rather breathtaking range of angles simultaneously. It’s a brilliantly concise script. Director Brandon C. Haut brings Pomerance’s script to the stage with an economy on a very intimate stage.
Voices Found Repertory’s production of The Elephant Man runs through March 15th at the Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit Voices Found online.