Maryland Ensemble Theatre brings 'The Elephant Man' to Westminster
By Jacob deNobel and Carroll County Times
May 06, 2015 | 9:29 PM
Carroll audiences will have a chance to take in the story of one of the most famous "freak show" performers, as the Maryland Ensemble Theatre brings their production of Bernard Pomerance's "The Elephant Man" to the Carroll Arts Center this weekend.
The show tells the story of Joseph Merrick, a 19th century man who exhibited himself and his deformities in freak shows and hospitals as the Elephant Man.
Director Julie Herber said audiences who are familiar with Merrick's story through David Lynch's 1980 film might be shocked by the look of actor Matt Lee in the role.
"The biggest thing that's a surprise to audiences is that the show is written specifically not to have prosthetics," Herber said. "Those who have seen the movie have seen John Hurt with full prosthetics and all of the deformities. The idea behind this is to give you more of a sense of the man. With prosthetics, you can't really see inside — you just see a creature. This brings up to a forefront a man who was very complex."
Lee said it's been a challenge to embody the character without any of Merrick's signifying physical traits, having to contort to match Merrick's stance and stature.
"The first thing we started working on was the physicality of it, just trying to see how far we could push the human body," Lee said. "I started doing yoga exercises and breathing exercises, trying to improve my flexibility and comfortably manage being in that position for two hours at a time."
Lee said he did a fair amount of research on Merrick's life, including reading biographies, original letters written by Merrick and watching documentaries. Thematically, Lee said, avoiding complicated makeup effects serves the story better than an accurate physical representation could.
"I think it speaks to the power of the human imagination, because it encourages audiences to explore the depth of filling in the blanks when nothing's there," Lee said. "More importantly, it allows audiences to see the human that is behind all of these physical deformities."
This rendition of "The Elephant Man" takes some slight deviations from the original production, by placing the content within the framework of a freak show, with each of the actors playing a secondary role as sideshow characters at the start of the performance. Herber said she wanted to infuse the entire show with the idea of circus and the feeling of being on display.
"I was fascinated with the whole idea of how Merrick was put on display in a freak show, but then he was put on display again in the London Hospital," Herber said. "We're taking that sort of sideshow, freak show idea and surrounding the show with that."
Lee said there are some difficulties in performing a show that is both based on a well-known, true-life story as well as one that has been famously adapted into a film with a different script.
"I think it gives us a cool opportunity to surprise audiences who are coming in expecting one thing, but then they get something that is different but similar enough to hook them in," Lee said. "It's been a challenge to separate it from the renowned and iconic imagery. We definitely made the show our own."
Merrick has been a well-known figure for more than 100 years. Lee said part of the story's staying power has to deal with how people relate to characters in pain.
"I think people love an underdog story. It's like 'My Fair Lady' to use a cheap example," Lee said. "It's almost unimaginable how he went from being abused and considered less-than-human to how he rose up to very top of society. It's inspiring, and it forces people to confront heavy, difficult questions about humanity and morality."
Herber said Pomerance's version of the story highlights its moral core.
"I think it's kind of a two-fold fascination with the abnormal, which is something that's been very prevalent," Herber said. "The story is filled with such compassion. Every single character or person to come into contact with him has a very different interaction. It's very touching to see the humanity of the story."