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Bernard Pomerance’s well-known “The Elephant Man” is a confrontational play, continually challenging the audience to confront perceptions about physical appearance and humanity, just as the characters themselves grapple with the same. The new production by the fringe company STAGEright, the first in Seattle since an excellent 2005 version by Strawberry Theatre Workshop, is directed by Robert Bogue. It embraces that intensity in an emotionally potent staging in STAGEright’s intimate space.

As scripted, Matthew Gilbert isn’t outfitted with prosthetics or transformed with makeup in his role as John Merrick, the real-life 19th-century Briton who was afflicted with terrible deformities. Instead, the actor is called upon to contort his body, and Gilbert creates a magnificent illusion, twisting his arm, hunching his body and distorting his mouth.

His controlled physicality is impressive. But it is Gilbert’s unvarnished vulnerability that strikes a raw nerve and instantly allows the audience to understand Merrick’s long history of being treated like human garbage.

Brian Lange nicely balances the philanthropic and opportunistic qualities of his Frederick Teves, the doctor who acts as Merrick’s guardian. Lorrie Fargo makes her own onstage transformation as a high-society woman whose friendship with Merrick progresses from obligation to true affection, culminating in a powerful scene where the walls between them come down and she’s naked both physically and emotionally.

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There’s a danger for this material to tip into the overwrought or gimmicky, given what an actor must do to portray Merrick, but Gilbert never comes across as less than authentic. A scene in which the man imagines himself as normal and his doctor as the freak is haunting stuff. That the rest of the production is able to keep pace with Gilbert’s riveting turn is a testament to just how strong it is.

Dusty Somers:

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