James L. Nederlander, Terry Allen Kramer, Catherine Adler
Roger Berlind, Caiola Productions, Patrick Catullo
Bradley Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, Alessandro Nivola
In the Williamstown Theatre Festival Production of
The Elephant Man
By Bernard Pomerance
(The Elephant ManWebsite)
With: Anthony Heald, Scott Lowell, Kathryn Meisle, Henry Stram
And an ensemble of actors
222 West 45th Street
Directed by Scott Ellis
Scenic & Projection Design: Timothy R. Mackabee
Costume Design: Clint Ramos
Lighting Design: Philip S. Rosenberg
Original Music & Sound Design: John Gromada
Hair & Wig Design: Charles G. LaPointe
Casting: Calleri Casting
Production Management: Aurora Productions
Production Stage Manager: Davin De Santis
Press Representative: Boneau/Bryan-Brown
General Manager: 101 Productions, Ltd.
Company Manager: Bobby Driggers
Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
December 11, 2014
For the thrill of viewing virtuosic acting skills, I recommend seeing The Williamstown Theatre Festival Production of The Elephant Man at the Booth Theatre, twice, while there are still available tickets. Bradley Cooper literally morphs, one limb or gesture at a time, into Bernard Pomerance’s title character, in the dramatization of the historical British figure, Joseph (John, here) Merrick. Merrick’s debilitating disease distorted him during early childhood from an average-looking child into one with massively altered skin and bones. Merrick’s mother died, when he was young (in the play, the character retrieves a photo from his vest pocket), and he was rejected by his father, on remarriage. Merrick spent years in the Leicester Union Workhouse, before being taken on by Ross (Anthony Heald), who has a side show of “freaks”. Frederick Treves (Alessandro Nivola), a new surgeon at London Hospital, garners permission from Carr-Gomm (Henry Stram), head of hospital, to study and lecture on the Elephant Man, after viewing him in the street show, with a hefty fee for Ross.
Events unfold, and Merrick is taken into the hospital “for life”, as a room and board guest, including medical treatments. Thanks to Carr-Gomm and Treves, Merrick realizes verbal self-expression, innermost feelings and desires, socio-political world views, and the ability to build a detailed, exact model of St. Phillips Church. During the initial scenes, Merrick is seen in a loose tunic for the side show, then in Bermuda shorts-fashioned underwear, as Mr. Cooper moves a hand, an elbow, a knee, in sync with Treves’ hospital lecture. The audience then views Mr. Cooper, for the remainder of this play, in, what must be painful to prolong, a debilitated posture from head to finger to toe. The actor has bulked up his muscles, somewhat, to expand illusion, and he speaks with the slur one might have with a twisted mouth and jaw. But, Mr. Cooper handles this role so eloquently, in languorous timing in spotlighted passages, that he becomes spellbinding. Patricia Clarkson, as a revered stage actress, Mrs. Kendal, becomes Merrick’s confidante, following her flirtation with the married Treves. The sub-plot of Mrs. Kendal’s sexuality and personality leads to the final scenes. Ms. Clarkson is stunning in the role, warmly transforming into the woman of Merrick’s (and probably Treves’) dreams.
Mr. Nivola is a devoted, but moralistic Treves, whose newly notable career becomes his obsession, having won fame and donations for London Hospital. Mr. Nivola’s Treves is compelling, as the scenes unfold, especially in the second act. Mr. Stram is the penultimate businessman, Carr-Gomm, the match to Mr. Heald’s Ross, both of whom find fortune in publicizing Merrick’s deformities, one in the name of research and one in the name of entertainment. But, in the interim, Carr-Gomm draws publicity and support, while Ross descends into poverty. Additional characters include a Countess, Duchess, Lord John, and Princess Alexandra, all of whom pay hospital visits to Merrick, bringing jewels and prized trinkets for his growing collection. There is also a pair of “Pinheads” with a Manager, in the earlier street show. Scott Ellis directs with astounding attention to poignancy, slow motion highlights, and emotionality. In particular, Mr. Cooper’s final scene is worth my recommended second visit.
Timothy Mackabee’s side show and lecture curtains are brilliantly conceived. Scenic furniture is minimal and moveable, secondary to viewing the evolving and magnetic Mr. Cooper. Clint Ramos’ costumes are critical to the delineation of British classes, with the regal hospital visitors in gorgeous hats and attire. Mr. Cooper is sequentially dressed in a draped burlap tunic, the lecture shorts, a hooded head-to-toe coat for travel, and finally a fine wool suit with suspenders. Philip Rosenberg’s lighting keeps the curtains lit from front or rear, as Merrick’s profile appears and disappears. John Gromada’s sound and music enhance and magnify the full audience experience. Kudos to Bradley Cooper, and kudos to Scott Ellis.