Fresno State’s University Theater presents The Elephant Man

Dec 8, 2012 | 2012 Articles, Arts & Entertainment, Heather Parish, Theatre

by Heather Parish

It is amazing how the things that inspired you as a young student can come back around to inspire you again as a mature artist. For Fresno State theater professor and director J. Daniel Herring, that’s the joy his current production, The Elephant Man has given.

The Elephant Man
is one of the first plays I read on my own when I started college in 1980. I have never directed it and I have never seen a production of it. I love the play then and still do–it has lived in my heart and head for over thirty years. To finally get to direct a play that moved me as a freshman in college is much like a dream coming true,” says Herring.

Dylan Curtis as Frederick Treves, Dane Oliver as John Merrick and Kia Vassiliades as Mrs. Kendal

The story of a Victorian man named Joseph Merrick, who suffered from a debilitating, deforming physical condition and how he influenced and affected the lives of those he knew as he lived in the London Hospital. Herring believes “this is perhaps the most touching and passionate play to deal with the universal and timeless themes of ‘beauty is only skin deep’ and ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover.’”

The Elephant Man
as written by Bernard Pomerance in 1977 is considered one of the most deeply-felt plays written in the 1970s and 80s. With the potential for a tour de force performance from the actor playing Merrick and plum roles for the actors playing Merrick’s doctor and the actress who befriends him, the play has legitimized the careers of some notable actors. Both Mark Hamill and David Bowie played the role of Merrick to positive reviews, giving them more credibility as actors. The role is particularly challenging because the actor must portray the deformity of Merrick’s body without using any prosthetics or special make up—and to do so while creating a deep and sympathetic inner life visible to the audience.

In the production at Fresno State, Herring has put together a sophisticated and highly theatrical production design to highlight the actors and their unique abilities. “I’m particularly proud of the unified production concept. When I approached the design team about a film noir style and the use of old sepia photographic tones they jumped right on board and I believe it is simply beautiful to look at. I also wanted the character of John Merrick to remain in view of both the theatre audience and the characters in the play at all times. Therefore, there are no blackouts. We see the characters end scenes and transition to the next scene in full view. What you get is those offstage and previous moments of characters on display for the audience to witness. I think this has been a rewarding aspect for our students–character development and research on exhibition as part of the play and for all to see.”

Dylan Curtis as Frederick Treves, Dane Oliver as John Merrick and Kia Vassiliades as Mrs. Kendal

While perhaps not your usual holiday theatrical offering, The Elephant Man offers great rewards for audiences who enjoy a warmly thoughtful story about what it means to be on display, how humans respond and react to “otherness” with both cruelty and kindness, and “how heartbreaking it is to only want acceptance and not be able to gain it without ridicule” explains Herring. “I also hope audiences take away some thoughts about what it means to help someone without selfish reasons.”

The Elephant Man
runs December 7–8 & 11–15 at 8 p.m. December 9 at 2 p.m. in the John Wright Theater, California State University, Fresno. Box Office: 559.278.2216 or buy tickets online.

There’s so much great theatre going on this month and KRL will be at most of it, so keep watching for more reviews! And plan on a theatre filled holiday because you’re not going to want to miss any of it. Check out our reviews up already of Beehive and Dad’s Christmas Miracle, Ordinary Days, Beauty And The Beast, White Christmas and Tuna Christmas (KRL readers get a ticket discount for that one).

Heather Parish is the Artistic Director of The New Ensemble Theater Group in Fresno. She writes a theater-themed blog What’s My Call Time? discussing theater ideas- local and national.


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