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02May

Elephant Man - Wakefield School - The Plains, Virginia - April 29, 2017

Lydia Gompper

George Mason High School

 

Humans choose to believe that we, as a species, are defined by our intelligence; it is the defining feature that allows us to stand above Earth's other creatures. Yet, we are capable of depriving another person of humanity based on appearance alone. This paradox is tastefully and profoundly portrayed in Wakefield School's production of "The Elephant Man."

 

Penned by Bernard Pomerance and premiering on Broadway in 1979, "The Elephant Man" dramatizes the life of Victorian Englishman Joseph Merrick (called John Merrick in the play), a thoughtful, artistic, and pious man best known for his severe physical deformities. The narrative follows John as, having subjected himself to the abuse and ridicule of a nineteenth-century freak show, he is discovered by doctor Frederick Treves, and ultimately comes to live under Treves's watchful eye at the London Hospital. There, he engages for the first time with the art and culture of "normal" society. But as he becomes ever more comfortable with society's upper crust, his condition only deteriorates.

 

Wakefield School has delivered an extraordinarily hard-hitting production of "The Elephant Man" – a production where a moment of silence held just as much meaning as a well-executed monologue, where the tension and nuance of the relationships between characters was capable of holding the audience entranced.

 

The success of this production fell squarely on the capable shoulders of Alexander Mischel, who held the weighty role of John Merrick. Mischel – who lacked any prosthetic makeup to show his character's unique appearance – portrayed John's disability completely through the use of his body. Dragging one of his feet, leaning crookedly against a cane, holding his mouth to one side of his face – Mischel perfectly maintained his remarkable, painful-looking physicality for the duration of the two-act show. He also spoke with a distinct accent, mixing a typical English affectation with the encumbered speech of one with a misshapen mouth without ever losing clarity of diction. However, it was Mischel's emotional interpretation of his role that most impressed; with a single moment of hesitation or a glimmer in his eye, Mischel could tell an entire story of fear or longing.   

 

This play was built on shades of gray: caretaking vs. controlling, acceptance vs. conformity, the analytical gaze of a scientist vs. the jeering sneer of a circus patron. This moral uncertainty was best represented in the character of Treves, played by Christopher Wagner. Wagner smoothly portrayed the many layers of his role, from his creepy diagnostic treatment of John after meeting him, to his faux-kind manipulation of John after bringing him to the hospital, to his growing genuine affection for his patient. He was a pleasantly confusing character – one difficult to pin down as "good" or "bad." Wagner truly came into his own in the second act, as his character became ever more anguished in the face of John's upcoming demise.

 

Yet another standout performance could be found in actress Skyler Tolzien, who portrayed John's companion Mrs. Kendal. Tolzien's depiction of Kendal's transition from wary discomfort to genuine care and trust for John was deeply touching. The moment she reached out to shake John's hand was among the most striking scenes of the entire production. She also succeeded in adding a dash of levity to an overall heavy show, giving Mrs. Kendal – an actress – an appropriately showy, clever personality.

 

Wakefield School's production of "The Elephant Man" was poignant and emotionally breathtaking – as thoughtful as John himself. As the lights rose and the audience stood to offer the cast a well-deserved standing ovation, there was nary a dry eye.


 

Sierra Hoffman

Fairfax High School

 

A startling and raw look at the life of the physically deformed John Merrick, The Elephant Man at Wakefield School was a powerful and emotional production.

 

Based on a true story, The Elephant Man follows the life of John Merrick, a horribly disfigured man also known as ‘the elephant man', as he leaves the circus side show to live with Frederick Treves, a scientist committed to giving him a more normal life. The show is traditionally performed without the use of prosthetics and makeup, rather the physicalities of the actor playing John must create his appearance. The show played on Broadway from 1971 to 1981.

 

As the elephant man, himself, Alexander Mischel gave an outstanding performance. Mischel superbly physicalized the deformities of his character in a consistent and authentic way. He gave an honest and dynamic performance that resonated in his connections with both the audience and his fellow cast members. Mischel kept a clear and strong accent throughout the show, and remained distinctly audible.

 

Christopher Wagner as Frederick Treves, the scientist who takes Merrick under his care, played his role with strong energy and passion. His accent was consistent and clear, and he gave the audience insight to his true feelings in moments of vulnerability. Skyler Tolzien as Mrs. Kendal also displayed passion in her robust, consistent performance. The supporting cast also had many strong actors. Willem Bonin as Bishop How made excellent use of his moments onstage, and made his character notable. Audrey Brown as Miss Sandwich gave another outstanding performance in her short time onstage.

 

The cast handled the heavy material with grace and maturity not often seen at a high school age. They did not fear silence, rather, they embraced the tension and used it to their advantage. The performers balanced drama and comedy with ease, with outstanding bold choices. The small stage, minimal set, and intimate playing area gave the actors room to fill the space with emotion while keeping their characters honest and believable.

 

Wakefield School's production of The Elephant Man was a captivating performance that tugged at the heartstrings of the audience from beginning to end.

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