Theater Interview: New Rep’s “Elephant Man” — A Meditation on Frailty, Celebrity, and Healthcare

Why does John Merrick get a room in the London Hospital for the rest of his life? Because he’s charming, and he’s witty, and the people who provide for him are turned on by him and enjoy his company, while the pinheads next door to him didn’t fare that well.

The Elephant Man, by Bernard Pomerantz. Directed by Jim Petosa. Staged by The New Repertory Theater at the Charles Mosesian Theater in the Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA, September 7 through 29.

By Tim Jackson

poster elephant_man

The New Repertory Theatre kicks off its 30th season with a production of the Tony award-winning drama The Elephant Man. The play is based on the story of John Merrick, a horribly deformed man found in London during the late 1880s. In the script, Merrick is rescued from a freak show by a Dr. Frederick Treves, who educates Merrick and then introduces him to London society. Merrick displays startling talent as an artist and poet, becoming a favorite of the British aristocracy and literati. The play is a considerable physical challenge for any lead actor, while the material lends itself to a variety of possible themes and interpretations. David Lynch’s memorable 1980 film version offers a peculiarly surreal take on Merrick’s significance.

I interviewed the play’s director (and New Rep Artistic Director) Jim Petosa to discuss his reasons for reviving the script, and its challenges for an actor.

Arts Fuse: I understand that you have directed other productions of The Elephant Man.

Jim Petosa: This is my fourth production of The Elephant Man. I first did it in 1991, then I did a small production in 1995, which moved up to a larger venue. What’s interesting to me this time is to explore what the script says about the question posed by post-ObamaCare: Is healthcare a basic human right, or is it a privilege that should be doled out according to people’s ability to pay for it? The conversation that we’ve been having nationally is so polarized that, for me, it’s very depressing. Going back to the nineteenth century and looking at it in Victorian terms we see a lot of these questions being asked for the first time and with no greater clarity. In this play we are at the very beginning of the rise of science, and the play speaks to us eloquently as we continue to grapple with this question in extremely fundamental ways. And we are a long way from resolving this one for ourselves.

AF: Certain scenes directly explore the idea of exploitation versus research.

Jim Petosa. Photo: Stan Barouh.

New Rep Artistic Director Jim Petosa. Photo: Stan Barouh.

JP: Yes – even the nature of research, of charity, of philanthropy. Why does Merrick get a room in the London Hospital for the rest of his life? Because he’s charming, and he’s witty, and the people who provide for him are turned on by him and enjoy his company, while the pinheads next door to him didn’t fare that well. And no one is more aware of this than Merrick himself. And Treves, the doctor, begins with a well-meaning, Puritanical notion of science and research and how it can cure humanities’ ills, but he becomes caught up in the traffic of fame and celebrity as though he had landed on a Reality TV show called “My Most Unforgettable Characters.”

In so many ways the manner in which we gawk at human frailty puts us not that far from the freak shows and the bad side of town in London. Now it just comes to us on our television sets and we feel superior to the freaks we see on television. So there’s something deeply human going on in this play that I think raises extraordinary questions for us and hopefully it can help propel us to some elegant answers.

AF: In Merrick we also have the soul of an artist, a man who could be a great artist, despite his freakish external appearance.

JP: And he is actually able to explore that artistic side of himself once his basic human needs are taken care of. When he’s on the skids with Ross, his unsympathetic handler, he is not able to make his beautiful architectural models with such clarity and poetry of design and re-creation, nor remotely think himself an artist. But when he’s cared for he is able to contribute in ways that are extraordinary.

AF: Would you agree that, apropos of our present culture, that there is also part of the play that addresses the important difference between art and popular entertainment?

JP: For sure. And yet this play does an interesting job of turning its tough questions and the tough journey for its characters into something that, because it is in some ways also a celebration of theater, becomes a really marvelous experience for an audience.

AF: There is a platonic level to the play, whereby Merrick sees art in very pure in terms, and the more enlightened he becomes, the closer he comes to his own destruction.

JP: Treves makes that very statement. As Merrick rises in fame and influence, his condition worsens. And Treves himself recognizes that connection to his own life. Because of his ‘rise’ with Merrick, Treves becomes mired in celebrity and finds himself worsening. He’s speaking in moral terms.

AF: That terrible irony applies to all of us: as we grow older and wiser we are inevitably moving closer to the grave. Do you think this is also a message in the play?

JP: Oh, I do. But isn’t that just the irony of life. You learn so many things when there’s so little time left. Apparently that is something in the design of the way our lives are built. It is endlessly frustrating, so I think you have to look at it with the degree of humor.

Tim Spears as John Merrick. Photo: Robert Lorino.

Tim Spears as John Merrick. Photo: Robert Lorino.

AF: How did you go about casting these parts and dealing with the difficult physicality of Merrick’s condition?

JP: Starting with Merrick himself: you have to find an actor who is comfortable with the really difficult hard-core dimensions of the characterization, and someone who has the stamina to do it because of the character’s physical contortion has to be sustained – not only for the two hours when you’re performing the play, but in rehearsal six days a week, up to seven hours a day. That’s the real conflict for the actor – maintaining that level of physical connection to the character for 36 hours a week. You need someone who can do that and is not daunted by that, and somebody sees in that process real fodder for the creation of the characterization. On top of that the performer has to have enough intellect to understand the character’s brilliance, as well as someone with enough vocal skill to play the real technical demands of interpreting these lines. Merrick has such a unique worldview and a limited capacity to express it kinesthetically, so it has to come through the voice.

Tim Spears is a young actor whom I have had the pleasure of working with many times over the last 10 years. For some time I’ve thought that he would be a terrific John Merrick. But it really wasn’t until a little over a year ago, when we were planning this season, that I found a compelling reason to revive this play. I think a lot of it was born out of the debate over healthcare that occurred in last presidential election. And for Tim it’s just the right time in his career to take this demanding role on.

That is in conjunction with Michael Kaye, the actor I have playing Dr. Treves. Together we have built a pretty substantial body of work both through the Boston Center for American Performance at Boston University, where we are all involved, and more recently with the New Rep production of Amadeus, which we were all involved with. They have a strong collaborative relationship with each other, as well as with me as a director, so it just seemed like a good confluence of personalities and talent and timing that led us to this point in time. We are in the second week of rehearsals and about to go into our tech week. I feel really good about we were headed. It’s an exciting journey.

Tim Jackson is an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art in the Digital Film and Video Department. His music career in Boston began in the 1970’s and includes some 20 groups, many recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980’s. He has directed two documentaries Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater, and Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups. He is currently finishing a third documentary titled A Woman’s Voice about the Boston singer/songwriter Robin Lane with whom he has worked for 30 years. You can read more of his work on his blog.

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