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Review: The Elephant Man at Williamstown

Rural Intelligence Arts

Bradley Cooper and Alessandro Nivola in"The Elephant Man.”

Any theatrical production of The Elephant Man, the Bernard Pomerance play about the hideously deformed neurofibromatosis-type-I-sufferer John (Joseph) Merrick, has a lot of memories to live up to, particularly the excellent 1980 film version starring John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, and Anne Bancroft, directed by David Lynch in his major feature film debut. But there are advantages as well. There are undercurrents and themes about Victorian mores and morality in the play that get, if not short shrift, overwhelmed by the frightening physical “reality” in the film. In live theater, the actor performing the character of the 19th-century Englishman Merrick does not wear realistic looking prosthetics, and the role has been traditionally cast with handsome men. (David Bowie, for one, famously starred in the Broadway version back in the late 1970s.)  And now, Williamstown Theatre Festival’s current revival gives us the year’s MOST handsome man (according to People magazine), Bradley Cooper, star of the Hangover movies and a few decent films as well (Wedding Crashers, for one).

Rural Intelligence ArtsThe program notes that whenever Cooper suggested to someone that he wanted to play the role, they would laugh. (He played Merrick for his NYU Actors Drama School thesis performance).  Everyone, that is, except the terrific Broadway and television director Scott Ellis (Company, Harvey, She Loves Me, and Weeds), who immediately got it, and staged the production here with his usual technical bravura and savvy with actors. As it turns out, it was a no brainer. Cooper is a wonderful actor and is wonderful in the role—moving, gallant, and yes,  sexy (as the play suggests the non corporeal Merrick was); he does a first-rate job.

Patricia Clarkson (above, right), always a quirky high note in every film, theater, and television role she steps into (I particularly loved her in Six Feet Under in the early 2000s), finds new feeling and meaning in the role of Mrs. Kendall, the actress who becomes Merrick’s closest friend. They both have good support from Alessandro Nivola as Dr. Frederick Treves, the man who takes Merrick under his wing, and once again Henry Stram serves well in the role of hospital director Carr Gomm. (He was a memorable Rev. Chasuble in WTF’s The Importance of Being Earnest this summer—talk about opposite ends of similar coins!)

The stellar restraint and skill of the direction and performances of this Elephant Man takes an honest, clear-eyed, and freshly thought-out approach to what remains, if done so well, a tremendously moving and purely theatrical work of drama. —Scott Baldinger

The Elephant Man at Williamstown Theatre Festival
The Nikos Stage
Through August 5

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 07/31/12 at 06:40 AM • Permalink