Not-So-Freaky Freak Show

The Mosaic Theatre's Richard Jay Simon is one of the most talented theater directors in South Florida. He's also one of the most versatile. His emotionally detailed hostage drama, Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, grabbed my attention in Mosaic's first season, when the company was playing to audiences of three or four. Flash-forward a few award-winning seasons to the post-modern musical A New Brain, which Simon staged (in the round!) with panache. His directing abilities are matched with business ones; he's billed as the Mosaic's "artistic/executive director," a catch-all term that suggests he's in charge of everything and anything. Whatever he's doing, it's working -- the Mosaic now enjoys strong audience support and has set its sights on expansion. But such success has creative costs, and the bill appears to be coming due. Last season's large cast costume drama Amadeus was more an exercise in logistics than a fresh take on the old warhorse. The same applies to the Mosaic's current production of The Elephant Man, Bernard Pomerance's tale of a deformed sideshow freak and the doctor who cares for him. Simon's staging is solid but far too safe. Like too many productions in this region, the motivating force behind this one seems to be a programming decision, not an urgent need to say something important.

The fact-based script tracks the title character, John Merrick, an intelligent but grossly deformed Englishman in the Victorian era who suffered a life of prejudice and abuse and ends up a virtual prisoner in a traveling freak show. An up-and-coming physician, Frederick Treves, discovers him and brings him to a hospital for study. There, free of the physical and emotional abuse of his past, Merrick thrives and attracts the support of the socially powerful. His poetic, spiritual nature affects those around him, Treves especially, as the doctor begins to doubt the primacy of his rationalist, scientific principles. The play, a Tony Award-winner in 1979, closely tracks a common narrative paradigm that centers on a rational man's relationship with an outsider/freak. (That's the key to Amadeus as well.) Theatricality is also central to The Elephant Man -- the cast of seven plays 19 characters, sometimes with lightning-quick costume changes. Merrick is not portrayed as a shuffling Quasimodo in extensive makeup and prosthetics. Instead, the actor must use only his physical abilities and slurred speech to suggest Merrick's deformities; while the other characters recoil in horror upon meeting him, the audience sees a normal-looking actor. In this conceit, Pomerance demonstrates the endless duality of appearance and truth and the paradoxical potential of the theatrical event -- sheer artifice and naked honesty at the same time. At times, Simon's production evokes a queasy, funhouse feel, but the script's cinematic style (David Lynch made a film version), with many characters in several short scenes, is in serious need of strong directorial invention. Simon tends toward a choppy literalism, with short scenes separated by quick blackouts, imposing a serious drag on the proceedings.

There's an arresting performance by the gifted Antonio Amadeo as Merrick, combining a moving emotional honesty with frequent touches of humor and a physical dexterity that makes Merrick's grotesquery wholly plausible. The ever-reliable Christian Rockwell is a credible Dr. Treves, but the production tends to sideline him, making him more a foil for Merrick than the dramatic engine of the play. The ensemble cast delivers uneven support. Kevin Reilly is splendid as a Dickensian huckster and a soulful clergyman, while Patti Gardner is seriously adrift as a famous actress who befriends Merrick. Ian T. Almeida's expansive hospital set is impressive but misguided, pulling the entire enterprise toward a grim realism that plods on and off stage through a single stage-left entrance.

The result here is predictable and careful, the kind of risk aversion that aims for competency and minimizes mistakes. This strategy, which is practiced in the majority of area theaters, makes sense from an operational standpoint. As a result, there's a sameness to local productions, with the same pool of competent but risk-averse actors, directors, and designers; the same aesthetic assumptions and prejudices; and the same profound lack of vision and courage. Add to these obstacles the vacuousness of civic leaders, a general lack of support for the arts, and the spirit-crushing conventionalism of critics and it's a foregone conclusion that vision and passion are almost homeless in the South Florida theater community. The cost of the play-it-safe strategy is slow aesthetic suffocation for our theater professionals and a continued famine for potential audiences hungry for truly challenging cultural experiences. In a dynamic, future-oriented community such as ours, this is a wasted opportunity.

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Ronald Mangravite