Monday, March 12, 2018

Hillbarn stages story of 'The Elephant Man'

From left Joshua Marx as John Merrick and Michael Barrett Austin as Frederick Treves. (Photo by Mark and Tracy Photography)

The story of a horribly deformed young man in the late 19th century is dramatized in Bernard Pomerance’s “The Elephant Man,” presented by Hillbarn Theatre.

Though fictionalized, it’s based on a real man, John Merrick (Joshua Marx), who suffered from neurofibromatosis, a debilitating condition that didn’t have a name or cure then.

Mocked and mistreated, John was part of a freak show until he was discovered by Dr. Frederick Treves (Michael Barrett Austin), an anatomical lecturer and rising young surgeon at a London hospital.

The play begins with Treves showing photos of the actual John Merrick, who had bulging growths all over his body. His right hand was useless, one eye was almost closed and his head was so swollen and misshapen that he couldn’t lie flat to sleep.

Treves rescued him and took him to live at the hospital, where he was well treated and could exercise his considerable intellect. At one point, John says, “My head is so big because it’s full of dreams.”

He became the darling of London socialites and royals, who donated money for his lifetime care.

Religion became important to him as he designed and then built a model for St. Philip’s Church.

His life was brightened by the arrival of Mrs. Kendal (Stephanie Maysonave), with whom he discussed what he was reading, such as “Romeo and Juliet.”

As their friendship developed, he confessed that he had never seen a naked woman. She obliges by baring her breasts. However, this tender moment is interrupted by Treves, who orders her to leave and never return.

Pomerance’s script has shortcomings. For example, it doesn’t make clear why Treves was being swindled by Lord John (Rich Matli). It’s also episodic.

Direction by Jasen Jeffrey does nothing to eliminate that effect, and it doesn’t make some of the characters particularly involving despite some good performances.

Likewise, the barebones set by Ting Na Wang does little to advance the drama. In particular, the model of the church was an important symbol in previous productions, but here it’s like an afterthought.

Nevertheless, Marx does a good job of transforming himself into John without resorting to makeup to become convincing.

Austin’s performance as Treves works well for the most part except toward the end, when he seems to suffer a crisis of faith. Maysonave remains too actressy as Mrs. Kendal.

Several other members of the ensemble are noteworthy, especially John Musgrave as Carr Gomm, the hospital administrator, and Thomas Cokenias in contrasting roles as Ross, the heartless  freak show manager, and as the bishop who becomes John’s spiritual adviser.

Lighting by Pamila Gray enhances the drama, but a footlight in front of an aisle is a tripping hazard.

Running about two hours with one intermission, “The Elephant Man” will continue through March 25 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City. For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411, Ext. 2, or visit