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Triumphant Elephant Man among the year's best
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Triumphant Elephant Man among the year's best

by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

The Elephant Man
Strawberry Theatre Workshop
Through August 9


Strawshop mounts another wonderful production with The Elephant Man. Bernard Pomerance's 1979 play tells the true story of a man, Joseph Merrick (named John in the play), who had a terrible disease linked to bone deformities, that also caused huge sponge-like skin growths and massive physical and facial distortions. Not unusually for mid-1800s England, Merrick was shunned and avoided, used as a freakshow attraction and beaten and abused. Fortunately for him, a well-respected doctor took him under his care and helped remove some of the deformities of face, so Merrick could speak understandably. Dr. Treves also made sure that Merrick had housing and was cared for until his death.

Pomerance's play specifically calls for the actor who plays this "elephant man" to wear no disfiguring costume, so you won't have to actually look at a horror through the whole evening. The substance of the playwright's request was to help the audience understand that they should look inside for the character of the person. There are a few helpful slides shown that do give you the true picture of what people saw, and it's no wonder that many once ran in terror at the idea that they could catch whatever disease Merrick had.

The production at the Erickson Theater (connected to Seattle Central Community College) is staged with a simple but elegant set by artistic director/set designer Greg Carter. Delicate lighting is added by Reed Nakayama. Interesting costumes are created by Chris Tschirgi. Music, live, lovely music, is added by Don Darryl Rivera, who also graced their stage as the pianist for Gutenberg! The Musical! last year.

The play's most riveting performance is by the luminous, heart-wrenching, exquisite MJ Sieber as The Elephant Man. Sieber contorts his body throughout the play, and creates sounds that all lend great credibility to his portrayal, even as he looks "normal." One has to wonder how he feels after holding himself that way for such a long period of time.

Director Julie Beckman brings out the best in her actors. The production moves briskly, introducing Dr. Treves, played marvelously by David Pichette, and other characters, played in multiple roles by Rob Burgess, Marty Mukhalian, Frank Lawler and Jim Dean. Alexandra Tavares also has a couple of roles, but her star character, Mrs. Kendal, an actress who is invited to "act" like she likes Merrick, is a pitch-perfect rendition of both the actress and the friend she becomes to Merrick.

Together, Pichette, Tavares and Sieber take you into the historic culture and attitudes of 1870 England, and cause you to fall in love with them. Treves' journey in the play displays Pomerance's theme of looking inside, as Treves starts to realize that maybe his charity is selfish and his imposition of his rules might be no different than others, just less harsh. Pichette clearly becomes tormented by his self-analysis. Sieber displays gentle civility and thoughtfulness, and Tavares shows every emotional transition effortlessly, as she first fears Merrick and then is beguiled by his personality.

It's not exaggerating to say that this has to be one of the best plays this year. It's well written and definitely well acted. It has something to say to us. A perennial message we need to be shown over and over: don't judge a book by its cover.

For more information, go to www.strawshop.org or www.brownpapertickets.com or call 800-838-3006.

Comments on reviews go to sgncritic@gmail.com.

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