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Struggles of The Elephant Man at FRT 

click to enlarge Jaison Chand, Josh Purvis and Keenan Hilton in The Elephant Man.

Courtesy of Ferndale Repertory Theatre

Jaison Chand, Josh Purvis and Keenan Hilton in The Elephant Man.

Ferndale Repertory Theatre set aside its regular spectacle of song and dance to produce a play that explores creativity and centers acting for its latest offering, The Elephant Man. The multi-award-winning script by Bernard Pomerance tells the story of John Merrick, who suffers from a rare medical condition that severely covers his body and face with growths, leaving him with the moniker from which the show's title comes and is inspired by the real life of Joseph Merrick. He's exhibited as a sideshow attraction, unscrupulously examined, abused and ridiculed, and used as a marionette for others' agendas. While the audience participates in the voyeurism, the show highlights how easily our humanity is abandoned to favor curiosity and our need for Roman entertainment. While Director Cleo DeOrio does an effective job at tackling these themes, I wished for a more consistent style and stronger commentary in the storytelling.

Keenan Hilton does a fantastic job in carrying the monumental task of portraying Merrick with just physicality and audience imagination to fill in for his character's illness and appearance. While that alone is an impressive feat, his ability to create an intimacy and sensitivity with other characters remedies the occasional physical slip and anchors the production. His acting is amplified in scenes with Jaison Chand as Gomm, the administrator of the London hospital that houses Merrick, and Joshua Purvis as Treves, a surgeon who "must" study Merrick. The trio feel like they are on the same page in their techniques — being their characters as opposed to doing things that show the audience their character, a more subtle and realistic approach to Acting 101. Opposite them are Jake Hyslop, Jaye Templeton and Taya Ross, who play multiple characters that further Merrick's story. They opt for a more Dell'Artian approach, with larger-than-life characters and a physical, in-your-face delivery straight to the audience. While either style could be appropriate for this production, an unsuccessful blend of both confuses the storyline and creates conflicting directions. For instance, in a dramatic scene between a realistic and focused Hilton and an exaggerated Templeton as Ross, the sideshow manager doesn't quite get the vulnerability needed to elevate the tension and resolution. The two styles overwhelm Austin Maisler and Mary-Jo Casasanta, who vacillate between the two styles, yet are very good in all their respective roles (the latter particularly as a captivating Princess Alexandra). All the actors are obviously gifted, but it feels at times like they are in different shows. As the run continues, the cast will undoubtedly become more unified in their presentation.

The unfortunate technical issues on the night I attended should do lighting designer Michael Foster better service in the future. Inexplicable lights moving as obvious as a spotlight to fill in dark gaps in the middle of scenes could not be part of the design. I was also baffled by the multitude of blackouts and what felt like eternal unnecessary set changes; one blackout was to bring on a solitary bookcase that was never actually used or referenced into a space that had already been established. However, I appreciated the demented beauty of Foster's dream sequence design and overall aesthetic, despite the technical troubles. Scenic painter Carin Billings does a fantastic job of creating interesting perspective with a brilliantly created realistic wooden floor that angles and elongates the stage and pairs well with Scenic Designer Jaiden Clark's interestingly shaped mobile pieces that teleport the audience into defined scenes. I was left with some questions about how Merrick's room is defined, particularly as he takes the longest stage bath in history, but their pieces are effectual and had a clear gothic point of view. Likewise, Lorie Knowles' costume design is beautiful. Every piece of clothing was on brand, period-esque and showed a clear perspective. Mrs. Kendal's dresses are divine and well suited for the character and Princess Alexandra's is just a majestic as the actor portraying her. Knowles also brings an attention and nobility to all the male characters, making them dapper and well rounded in their costumes. Though I could do without some terribly unrealistic monkey ears, I still appreciated the bold choice and overall aesthetic.

FRT's production of The Elephant Man is an extremely challenging work with a talented cast, passionate director and production designers. Once everything solidifies and becomes fully realized in the course of the run, I am confident the issues that arose on the night I attended will be resolved. I encourage you to be there when it does.

Ferndale Repertory Theatre's production of The Elephant Man plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Feb. 19. Call (707) 786-5483 or visit ferndalerep.org.

Tiggerbouncer Custodio (he/she/they) is an empowered queer Indigenous Filipino artist whose works have been seen on Humboldt stages and elsewhere

Coming Soon

Dan Hoyle performs a solo show of seven early pandemic stories, Talk to Your People, Feb. 4 at 8 p.m. at the Arcata Playhouse. Call (707) 822-1575 or visit playhousearts.org.

Dell'Arte goes back to its Italian roots with semi-improvised physical comedy and masks with A Night of Commedia at the Carlo Theatre from Feb. 9 to 11 at 8 p.m. Call (707) 668-5663 or visit dellarte.com.

The theater kids of HLO KidCo are performing Beauty and the Beast Jr. at the Arkley Center for the Performing Arts Feb. 17 at 7 p.m. and Feb. 18 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Call (707) 630-5013.

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