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‘The Elephant Man’ a triumph for Ten Bucks

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Aimee Gerow, left, and Alan Estes in Ten Bucks Theatre's production of "The Elephant Man." Aimee Gerow, left, and Alan Estes in Ten Bucks Theatre's production of "The Elephant Man." (photo courtesy Ten Bucks Theatre Company/Michelle Handley)

BANGOR – An unforgettable tale of pathos and pain, humor and heart, is gracing the Ten Bucks Theatre stage.

“The Elephant Man,” written by Bernard Pomerance and directed by Julie Arnold Lisnet, is running at the new Ten Bucks space located in the Bangor Mall. Performances of the show run through April 7.

It’s based on the true story of John Merrick, a man living in London in the Victorian Era who was afflicted with a malady that resulted in drastic deformation of his body. Despite bleak beginnings, Merrick eventually encountered a benefactor that allowed him to experience life beyond the limitations imposed upon him by his disorder.

It’s a tragic tale, to be sure, but one that also features moments of uplift and hope. Through keen curiosity and relentless gentleness, Merrick manages to find a home – a home where he is finally able to be spoken to, rather than gaped at.

The year is 1884. Dr. Frederick Teves (Tyler Costigan), a young but accomplished medical scholar, has just accepted a new job at the London Hospital. He has moved to town at the behest of hospital administrator Francis Carr-Gomm (Ron Lisnet), who hopes the young doctor’s research acumen will serve the facility well.

But young Teves is soon confronted with evidence of the limitations of his knowledge. A rough-edged man by the name of Ross (Neil E. Graham) is working the passing crowds in an effort to entice them into his freak show, headlined by John Merrick (Alan Estes) – a massively, hideously deformed person billed as “The Elephant Man.” Teves, fascinated by Merrick’s disorder, makes arrangements with Ross to study the afflicted man; he brings Merrick to the hospital and puts him up.

But while Teves initially is only concerned about Merrick’s physical ailments, he soon realizes that buried beneath the run-amok biology is a thoughtful, intelligent man – someone whose natural gifts have long been trapped inside him by nature and circumstance.

In an effort to help nurture that intellect, Teves enlists the aid of Mrs. Kendal (Aimee Gerow), an actress whose curiosity is piqued by a letter from Carr-Gomm in the newspaper. She becomes a friend and companion to Merrick, giving him the unconditional attention that he had never before received. She sees beyond the surface, to the deep-running waters beneath, giving Merrick one of the first true friends he has ever had.

It’s not long before Mrs. Kendal’s influence has the highest of high society cycling in and out of Merrick’s orbit. Prominent figures from the nobility and from the church are all fascinated by the exponential expansion of Merrick’s worldview and personality. All the while, Teves is trying desperately to reconcile his desire to solve Merrick’s condition with a need to keep him safe from exploitation.

As time passes, Merrick’s intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth is matched only by his physical deterioration. But even as his health worsens, his soul remains indomitable and serves as an inspiration to those who come to know him. Ultimately, while he may look the part, the Elephant Man is no monster.

“The Elephant Man” is a challenging piece of theater, one whose tone is difficult to properly strike. While there’s an undeniable sense of tragedy that permeates the piece, one must resist the temptation to succumb fully to the shadows. There’s humor to be found in this story; it’s not necessarily easy to find, but it’s there, and if an ensemble can uncover it, the entire proceedings are elevated.

That’s what director Julie Lisnet does here. She’s mindful of the dramatic beats of the narrative, of course, and lets them unspool with a compelling smoothness. But where she shines is in letting the moments of humor have room to breathe. Unrelenting tragedy rarely serves an audience well; by allowing us to laugh, she creates the space necessary for an empathetic response. Laughter is one of the best ways to remove a sense of otherness, and so laughter is what really unlocks our connections – not only to Merrick, but to those who surround him as well.

In a show like this one, the performances – particular the titular one – are vitally important. The role of John Merrick is traditionally performed without prosthetics or makeup; it is up to the actor to provide a physical representation of Merrick’s maladies. It is a part that makes massive demands of the actor who plays it.

And what Alan Estes does is … well, it’s remarkable. It’s a feat of physicality unlike anything seen on an area stage in some time; Estes twists and contorts his body in a manner that is both overt and somehow subtle, capturing the essence of Merrick’s biological malignancy with nothing more than a cane and ferocious commitment.

Costigan offers us a look at a man whose optimism is both stoked and eroded by his close connection to Merrick; his work as Dr. Treves makes the narrative heavy lifting he does look effortless. Gerow is equal parts haughty and humble as Mrs. Kendal, capturing her spirited personality while also exuding a soulful, sympathetic generosity; it’s a magnetic performance. Ron Lisnet is staid and stuffy as Carr-Gomm, bristling with officiousness, while Graham offers up a Ross oozing with malevolent opportunism.

As ensemble members, Mark Bilyk, Joe Fisher and Jennifer Snow turn in solid supporting work. Of special note are the Pinheads (played Andrea Littlefield, Kim Meyerdierks, Mackenzie Peacock and Holly Schreiber), a babbling quartet whose presence is indicative of a sort of freak show Greek chorus; all four actors play additional supporting roles as well.

“The Elephant Man” is a challenging work, one that asks a considerable amount from those trying to produce it. It’s a daring choice for Ten Bucks Theatre – and one that pays off handsomely. Anchored by some excellent lead performances and a powerful script, it’s a genuinely moving and emotionally impactful experience.

So if you’re looking for thought-provoking theater well-performed, well, as strange as it might sound … you can find it at the mall.

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