Review: City Lights’ ‘Elephant Man’ is effective, insightful

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John Merrick (George Psarras) goes on a path of self discovery in “The Elephant Man,” through April 17th at City Lights Theater Company. (Photo by Susan Mah)

John Merrick stands firmly at attention, a pair of khaki shorts, no shirt, staring blankly into space. This particular tableau is a bit striking in its simplicity. But slowly, as the doctor describes Merrick’s diagnosis, which attacks his anatomy, skin and his fragile psyche, Merrick slowly morphs into a being known to the masses as “The Elephant Man.”

City Lights Theater Company’s production of Bernard Pomerance’s play of the same name is a delightful showcase of some scintillating, individual performances with plenty of pathos and nuance, which brings the true plight of Merrick into calm, painful focus.

At the center of those performances is Merrick, played with great physical control by George Psarras, a member of the company who has his fingerprints on many City Lights’ productions, certainly as an actor and also for his work with sound design. Here, Psarras breaks down his approach to Merrick where it most needs to be – physically.

Take note of that first meeting the audience has with Merrick. Alongside the live portrayal of Merrick’s transformation, which instantly conjures a life of pain and punishment, we see actual photos of Merrick, which is a humbling reminder that this was actually a man, one of a brilliant mind and tortured soul.

The pain of Merrick actually comes even sooner than that. There is the iconic image of a man wearing a hat and a kind of burlap covering, to shield his face from the outside world. He is locked in a sickening side show in Victorian era England when Treves (a conflicted, yet warm Max Tachis) takes him under his wing.

The journey Merrick embarks on is a world of self-discovery, a man who is treated with kid gloves but begins to show uncanny genius. There are his art projects, which allow his mind the freedom to explore without judgment. His mind is constantly racing, while he approaches his artwork with expressive, meticulous reasoning.

Director Lisa Mallette has a great sense of pace as she moved the action along. There are plenty of moments that can be a bit frenetic, but much of the mood is pensive. This is a play that does well by showcasing the insight of the mind. I was most intrigued by how Merrick thinks, with Psarras sharing his internal process with aplomb. And one moment that did not strike me right away was one of its most effective.

Take the moment where glitzy actress Mrs. Kendal, played with genuine warmth by Kristin Brownstone, gives Merrick an opportunity to experience real love and visceral beauty. His reaction, while uttering the words “That is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” was completely dark, with nary a feeling.

Yet, that reaction, while seemingly underplayed, was loaded with truth. This is a play that is done with no prosthetics, no fancy makeup, no special lighting. This is a play where the actor is wholly responsible for every internal and external experience the character goes through. And the honest touches throughout the piece were complete and organic.

Other performers in the small cast were nicely layered. Tom Gough, playing multiple roles as others did, is a staple in San Jose’s theatre scene, showing a nice range as freak show manager Ross and Bishop How, while Jay Steele also does well as hospital administrator Carr Gomm.

Psarras, as previously mentioned, pulls double duty in this production, adding a nice soundscape to the proceedings. City Lights’ ability to use surround sound in their quaint performance space is a wonderful touch.

“The Elephant Man” is a constant reminder in the sense that the audience, as well as the other characters, are always forced to look within a person’s soul to find beauty. But sometimes, that person wants more. Sometimes, they want to be desired. And other times, that person may just want to paint, sculpt or lie down and get a good night’s sleep.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

City Light’s Theater Company presents “The Elephant Man”
Written by Bernard Pomerance
Directed by Lisa Mallette
The Word: A showcase performance by George Psarras, assisted nicely by a lovely ensemble cast.
Through April 17th
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
City Lights Theatre
529 S. Second St., San Jose, CA
Tickets range from $17 – $34
For tickets, call (408) 295-4200 or visit www.cltc.org

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