John Merrick, a sensitive soul with a poetic nature, was born into poverty in Victorian London, doomed to exist in a body so wracked and deformed that he spent his first 21 years in workhouses and freak shows. Widely known as the Elephant Man, Merrick’s tragic true story has been told many ways over the years, including the atmospheric Oscar-nominated David Lynch film in 1980.
The Elephant Man, by What a Show productions, running through Oct. 13 at the Spreckels Center in Rohnert Park, is not the elegant 1979 Tony-winning play by Bernard Pomerance. With a script lifted verbatim from the movie version, and with full monster makeup for Merrick, director-producer Scott van der Horst attempts to transfer the emotional power of the Lynch movie onto the stage. It’s a compelling idea, but as orchestrated by van der Horst (who skillfully shepherded recent hits such as Spring Awakening and Les Misérables), the ambitious but misguided enterprise fails spectacularly.
The assaulting, full immersion, pre-show “entertainment,” with a 19th-century carnival theme, has a dozen actors—barkers, panhandlers, bearded ladies—populating the theater as audience members arrive, filling the room with noise, characters shrieking, screaming and demanding money. It’s like the Dickens Faire of the Damned. Then the play begins.
In the Lynch film, there are many short scenes, set in many different locations. Mystifyingly, van der Horst attempts the same thing onstage, resulting in scenes that sometimes last a mere 90 seconds followed by scenery changes that can last up to three or four minutes.
There are so many noisy, clunky scene changes, in fact, that the play is never allowed to build any real dramatic momentum, despite some spirited performances, and the whole ungainly endeavor balloons to nearly three hours. Additionally, a sense of uncertainty and disorganization permeates the production, with actors frequently exiting in one direction only to stop and head in another.
Fortunately, to play Merrick, van der Horst has recruited one of Sonoma County’s best young actors, Peter Warden (last seen in Main Stage West’s Silver Spoon), who dons pounds of prosthetic Elephant Man headgear. Warden gives an expressive, committed, heart-rending performance, transforming his body and voice, and projecting a sense of wounded nobility even while working beneath all that artificial foam and rubber. Unfortunately, his performance is virtually crushed beneath the overreaching clutter and stunning clumsiness of the production. The result is one of the most memorable performances of the season in one of the most forgettable productions all year.