‘The Elephant Man’ @ Williamstown Theatre Festival, 7/26/12

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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. – Can Bradley Cooper, aka the sexiest man alive, really pull off playing the hideously deformed title character in Williamstown Theatre Festival’s production of “The Elephant Man”?

Yes, he can. His John Merrick — a man with hideous deformities who goes from being a sideshow freak to the toast of the town – succeeds with the right amount of intensity to maintain his contorted posture and the right amount of charm to reveal Merrick’s humor and humanity.

Cooper’s transformation into Merrick is one of the strongest moments of theatricality in the production. Cooper stands onstage dressed only in shorts while a screen shows photographs of the actual John Merrick and Merrick’s caretaker Dr. Treves (ably played by Alessandro Nivola) describes the images. As Treves details Merrick’s deformities, Cooper undergoes a stunning transformation by twisting his fingers together, lifting his arm, turning in a leg, thrusting out a hip and sliding his lips to one side of his face.

The moving moment works, but Cooper isn’t the best part of the show.

The top accolades go to Patricia Clarkson, who plays actress Mrs. Kendal, and the design team. In the best passage of the play, Clarkson rehearses variations of how she will greet Merrick with Treves, who has asked her to come in because, as an actress, she can hide her revulsion at Merrick’s deformities. Clarkson’s variations of “pleased to meet you” all sound cheery and fake, and stand in stark contrast to the sincerity and depth of emotion she conveys after she does meet Merrick. The moment is a truly astounding piece of theater.

Timothy R. Mackabee’s stage design stands out for its simplicity and efficiency. Over a bare wooden stage hang Victorian-era lamps, and the many scene changes are swiftly suggested through the effective use of various screens – off white to suggest a hospital; decorated ones for freakshows, for example.

Tom Kochan’s original music and his and Drew Levy’s sound design add a sense of urgency with the music and of fullness with crowd noises.

Clint Ramos’s costume designs – heavy suits for most of the male characters, and exquisite gowns for Clarkson — effectively suggest Victorian-era London.

In short, director Scott Ellis does wonderful things with a play that has great theatricality, but isn’t great drama.

The play is too episodic. In Merrick’s initial encounter with Kendal, he espouses a complex interpretation of “Romeo and Juliet.” This surprises not only Kendal, but also the audience. It seems to come out of nowhere. In the second act, a minor character talks about some kind of scandalous contract, and then the main characters react to it, but it isn’t really clear what is being discussed, or what kind of impact it is having on the characters’ lives.

The spine of the play (and most of the dialog) is center around Treve’s story: He is a doctor on the rise who, through Merrick, realizes the hypocrisies of Victorian society. That lesson may have had more punch with the play first played Broadway in 1979, but it lacks much of a punch today.

The true moral center of the story, though, is between Merrick and Kendal. The play needs more of them, especially with such great performances by Cooper and Clarkson.

Theater review

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Nikos Stage, Williamstown Theater Festival, 1000 Main St., Williamstown, Mass.
Length: 110 minutes, with one intermission
Continues: 2 p.m. today, Thursday and Sunday, Aug. 5; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday; and 3 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: The show is listed as sold out, but a ticket lottery will be held 2.5 hours before each production for $45 seats and $20 standing room only tickets.
Info: http://www.wtfestival.org


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