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Center Stage

Elephant in the room


It takes a professional to weather a blackout. The lights quit unexpectedly midway through the first act of “The Elephant Man” — perhaps this had to do with the blizzard outside — yet Bob Baskerville kept on, unfazed. As Gomm, head of the hospital providing sanctuary to the deformed title character, he went on delivering some bad news to an underling.

“The Elephant Man” Tallgrass Theater Rex Mathes Auditorium, West Des Moines Fri.-Sat., Feb. 6-7, and Feb. 13-14, 7:30 p.m.

“The Elephant Man”
Tallgrass Theater
Rex Mathes Auditorium, West Des Moines
Fri.-Sat., Feb. 6-7, and Feb. 13-14, 7:30 p.m.

“You are truly sacked,” declared Baskerville. Even in the dark, you could make out his ramrod, unforgiving posture. By the time the lights came back, Steve Hickle, as the former orderly, could only slink away.

The production comes off with laser focus and makes rattling, swift work of a Bernard Pomerance script that, at worst, would come across like a history lecture. First performed in 1977, this “Elephant Man” has little in common with the David Lynch movie; it does without latex or special effects. Still, both works are based on the brief, tragic life of John (or Joseph) Merrick, a freakshow unto himself back in Victorian England. After Merrick was taken in by a London hospital, he became a darling of high society. But he died as he lived — alien and incurable.

Pomerance enhanced these ironies with super titles such as “Mercy and Justice Elude Us,” and Tallgrass put an edge on these, projecting them on fluttery, fraying canvas. Otherwise, the set keeps things simple, with black cage-lamps on white brick pillars. The direction shuttles the cast from side to side to create scene changes as well as using blackouts — intentional in every case but one.

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Still, nothing put this show across like its experienced and versatile cast. While Gomm gave his orderly the sack, off to one side stood Michael Davenport, one of the few local actors with a resume to match Baskerville’s. As Dr. Treves, Davenport deferred to his boss. As the savior of the Elephant Man, he shows up in almost every scene, and in a hair-raising freefall, goes from a star doctor to a near-psychotic. Along the way, Davenport makes canny use of his Brainiac forehead, poking it as if his mind has betrayed him.Elephant Man 3

As for Andrea Markowski, the actress who provides Merrick’s entrée to rarified social circles, she delivers her richest performance to date. Even when naked to the waist, her hands cupped over her breasts, she makes you notice her glare: wounded, angry, yet hoping against hope.

The true energy source, however, remains the Elephant Man. Abraham Swee generates electricity in a way that recalls David Bowie, the first to play the role on Broadway. As Swee contorts his lean body to mimic Merrick’s disfigurement, his hips seem to go out of joint, his neck seemingly lengthening a few inches as well. Even more startling is his voice, turning glottal, almost burpy, yet ever a challenge to his visitors, biting off sharp-edged questions. No lecture ever sounded so unpredictable, so penetrating.


Overheard in the Lobby: Bard Lite: In Ames, Actors’ presents “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised].” CV

John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.

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