WILLIAMSTOWN -- Can one truly transform into John Merrick, the horribly disfigured freak show performer at the center of Bernard Pomerance's "The Elephant Man," without the aid of prosthetics and heavy make up? That was just one of the questions lingering heavily this summer when the Williamstown Theatre Festival announced that Bradley Cooper, dubbed 2011 "Sexiest Man Alive" by People magazine would star in the title role.
Despite his self-described "obsession" with the play, which served as his senior thesis in drama school, more than a few theater regulars whispered their concerns about Cooper being too good looking for the role, which Pomerance himself ordered to be played without visual aids of make-up and the like.
Those whispered concerns can be dispelled. Cooper, who stars opposite Patricia Clarkson as actress and love-interest Mrs. Kendal, physically and mentally contorts himself into the character of Merrick before the audience within the first few minutes of the play.
Standing next to a large screen, which displays images of the real-life Joseph Merrick (his name was changed to John for the play), Cooper visually takes on the physical characteristics of the Elephant Man as Dr. Frederick Treves (Allesandro Nivola) describes each deformity. The change is visually remarkable, but more astounding is Cooper's ability to morph himself into a believable version of Merrick.
The play is the story of Merrick's later life,
As part of his normalization of Merrick and his introduction to women and society, Treves employs the services of famous actress Mrs. Kendal, hoping her acting skills will mask any disgust and repulsion she may feel. Clarkson has a wonderful scene where she practices meeting Merrick, which displays her own acting range and skill.
Mrs. Kendal is so impressed by Merrick's intellect during their first meeting, which includes a discussion of "Romeo and Juliet," that she introduces him to Victorian high society. Their platonic relationship continues over the course of several years, during which time Merrick's condition worsens, until he tells Mrs. Kendal he should take a mistress and admits to never seeing a "real woman" naked. In a moment of complete trust, Mrs. Kendal disrobes, only to be interrupted by Treves, who sends her away. Merrick will die without ever seeing her again.
After seeing Cooper's performance as Merrick, there is no question as to why he was so insistent on bringing "The Elephant Man" to the stage. As Merrick, Cooper is able to bring a much different version of himself -- the role is as far from the typical roles he plays in the buddy comedies that have brought him fame. He is able to stretch his acting muscles and prove he is much more than a pretty face.
Clarkson is also well-suited for her role, as she glides across the stage with a slightly aristocratic air. However, unlike her aristocratic friends who befriend Merrick as a novelty, Clarkson's Kendal is one who fully allows herself to have a relationship with the strange man and to see beyond his disfigurements.
The chemistry between Cooper, Clarkson and Nivola flows wonderfully, as each interacts with each other. Nivola gives us a Treves who at first is confident and overbearing in his skill, but later allows us to see that inner vision of himself crack and slip away as he holds Merrick to stringent moral standards instead of allowing his patient to address of all his needs -- mental and physical.
Director Scott Ellis has brought a highly-intelligent production of Pomerance's play to the stage, playing sensibly to the underlying themes that are peppered throughout its dialogue -- religion vs. science, man's inhumanity to man and the illusion of beauty.
The play would be perfect except for an odd scene in which Treves discusses a deal gone bad with a phony Lord. One can only guess that it is included to show that despite the moral code he holds Merrick to, Treves has his own faults. Unfortunately, it feels out of place and serves only to confuse the audience.
While this production sold out months ago, there are a limited number of seats and standing-room only tickets, available by lottery prior to each performance.
To reach Jennifer Huberdeau, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
What: "The Elephant Man," with a running time of 120 minutes, with a 15 minute intermission.
Where: Nikos Stage, Williamstown Theatre Festival, ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main St., Williamstown
When: Performances are Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinees are on Saturday at 3:30 p.m., and Thursday and Sunday at 2 p.m. The show runs through Aug. 5.
Tickets: A ticket lottery is being held in front of the box office 2 1/2 hours prior to each performance. Seats are $45 and standing room only tickets are $20.