When David Bowie and, more recently, Bradley Cooper took on the role of "The Elephant Man" on Broadway, both celebrities knew the weight of being stared at by the masses. Audiences gawked at Bowie and Cooper much like Victorian gawkers gathered to stare at one of history's most famous sideshow attractions. The Collaborative Theatre's co-production of "The Elephant Man" with Fells Point Corner Theatre doesn't have a marquee name, but it does have a star in Grayson Owen, who gives a supernova performance as the deformed "Elephant Man," John Merrick.
Bernard Pomerance's 1977 biographical play retells how, under the tutelage of London doctor Frederick Treves, Merrick rises from sideshow freak to a sort of mascot of the Victorian upper class. Merrick was a real man (whose first name was actually Joseph) who suffered from a genetic condition that caused grotesque deformities, including the enlargement of three limbs and a large bone growth on his head. Merrick was extremely intelligent and charming and here, the story focuses on Merrick's life in London at the end of the 19th century, when he was taken in by doctor Treves and lived out his final years.
Director Anthony Lane Hinkle has supporting actors deliver dialogue on the upper level and curved staircases of Kel Millionie's smart two-level set, bookending the center of the stage and surrounding Merrick like a circus ring or medical school auditorium. Furniture pieces appear from underneath the upper level of the set, which also transforms quickly into a carnival tent, train platform, and Merrick's bedroom in smooth scene transitions.
During an early scene, Owen contorts his body to match each of Treve's medical descriptions of Merrick's physical abnormalities while projected photographs of the real-life Merrick appear behind the actors. It's a physically taxing role, and like Cooper, Bowie and others before him (and unlike John Hurt in David Lynch's 1980 film adaptation), Owen wholly embodies Merrick without the use of makeup or prosthetics, maintaining the visibly uncomfortable posture throughout the show. I hang on every word Owen says through side-sneered lips and labored breathing. He artfully delivers profound observations about literature and humanity from Pomerance's script. Merrick says his head may be so big because it is full of dreams. "Before I spoke with people," he says, "I did not think of all these things, because there was no one to bother to think them for. Now, things just come out of my mouth which are true."
As Merrick's clueless caretaker Frederick Treves, Sean Coe offers a physically and emotionally rigid foil to Owen's twisted body and tender delivery. Treves asks Merrick to repeat phrases as if he were a pet parrot: "This is my home. If I abide by the rules, I will be happy." Merrick acquiesces—until he doesn't when, in the second act, he finally stands up to the well-intentioned but out-of-touch Treves.
The world-wise stage actress Mrs. Kendal (played by Aladrian Wetzel) is the only character who connects with Merrick beyond mere pity or fascination. She knows what it's like to only be seen for her outer shell. Wetzel and Owen create two of the most touching scenes in the show—when Merrick holds a woman's hand for the first time, and when he sees one naked for the first time.
Pomerance's script allows the supporting characters to reflect the shaky foundation of the intellectual Victorian (and modern) society through their self-satisfying and tokenizing treatment of Merrick. These supporting characters, however, are not nearly as well-defined, and it's even unclear who some of them are until the second act of The Collaborative's production. At times raced through flatly, a lot of the dialogue gets lost in accents that go in and out of "My Fair Lady" and present-day American.
Still, the script compellingly echoes ignorance we hear all too frequently. In one scene, a parade of gentility encircles Merrick, each enumerating how he is "just like them" despite his appearance. The self-congratulatory announcement of finding humanity in someone superficially different seems a familiar grasp at limited acceptance, much like "I have a black friend, so I understand their suffering" or "My barista is gay; of course I'm not homophobic."
These people deny Merrick any real human connection—they marvel at his intellect because of his body, a surprising source of beauty and truth, unable to separate his words and his appearance. Even when Merrick leaves freak show life to be welcomed into high society, he is still the spectacle; his peers are still his audience.
"The Elephant Man" runs through Oct. 2 at Fells Point Corner Theatre. For more information, visit fpct.org or collaborativetheatre.org.