Standing straight up in his Victorian Hospital skivvies the handsome and buff Bradley Cooper, sharing the stage with an enlarged photo of the actual Joseph Merrick and Dr. Frederick Treves (an excellent Alessandro Nivola) who is describing in detail the deformities of Mr. Merrick, Mr. Cooper contortions himself into the malformed man he is to portray brilliantly in Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 thin and episodic play THE ELEPHANT MAN at the Booth Theatre.
It is a combination of The Cripple of Inishmaan and Side Show. A story about a disfigured man who became the meal ticket of Ross (Anthony Heald) who trotted him across Europe charging money to take a peek at his freak. Flopping in Belgium, Ross sends Merrick back to London where he is befriended by Dr. Treves who believes that he can give Merrick an almost normal life.
Merrick may be deformed but he has a keen sense of humor, is highly intelligent, is willing to learn and most importantly compassion. He’s like a child growing up, experiencing things for the very first time including religion and seeing a naked woman’s bared breasts. His enlarged head is full of big dreams but the dreams of sleep come only while sitting up.
Mr. Cooper’s performance is consummate in this highly theatrical and bare bones production exquisitely directed by Scott Ellis.
The stark unit set design by Timothy R. Mackabee allow fluidity of movement. With the use of curtains and a few set pieces that are moved around by the ensemble we see the emergence of the man that most people couldn’t even look at lest they be disgusted.
Mr. Cooper speaking mostly out of the side of his mouth, with a crippled right hand and limping around with one hip higher than the other allows the beautiful inner Merrick to shine through his highly theatrical imagined horrific exterior balancing himself precariously at times on his cane.
The well intentioned and compassionate doctor introduces Merrick to an equally compassionate Mrs. Kendal (a fine and amusing Patricia Clarkson) – an actress who introduces him to her society friends in Act II where the story becomes a bit derailed and confusing – focusing on the dilemmas that Doctor Treves and Bishop How (Anthony Heald) face in dealing with their patient who is constructing a miniature model of St. Phillip’s church with his one workable hand.
Mr. Merrick fades into the background – unfortunately. But Bradley Cooper even while not the main focus remains riveting in his portrayal of THE ELEPHANT MAN. It’s a performance not to be missed making us realize that there are no freaks. We are one – human beings all and should be treated as such – with compassion. Through February 15th 2015.
Thanks to the Williamstown Theatre Festival who first produced this production in 2012.
Photos: Joan Marcus
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