It’s rare that an audience gets to see an actor transform into a character.
Early in the Ephrata Performing Arts Center’s production of “The Elephant Man,” directed by Michael Swanson, Dr. Frederick Treves (Gene Connelly) circles the stage as the title character, also known as Joseph Merrick (Tim Riggs), stands on display in nothing but his undergarments.
The scene and its success is crucial, because although the title character has severe physical deformities spanning his entire body – including his face – playwright Bernard Pomerance discourages against the use of any makeup or prosthetics on the actor portraying Merrick.
Treves lists Merrick’s deformities one by one, and Merrick responds by embodying it physically. A bent arm, a crooked and puffed-out lip, an ‘S’-like curvature to his entire posture – all of these things contribute to Riggs’ transformation into Merrick.
And what a marvelous transformation it is.
Riggs’ physical commitment to the role throughout the show is unparalleled. He utilizes his entire being – physical, vocal and seemingly even emotional – to completely become Merrick.
Merrick, abandoned by his mother as a toddler, is exploited as a freak show subject. After meeting Treves, the doctor studies him for medical research to determine the cause of his severe abnormalities.
Treves helps provide stability in Merrick’s life by giving him a consistent place to live at a London hospital, but even then, Merrick’s life is anything but easy.
The shame Merrick endures during his time in Victorian-era freak shows haunts him the rest of his life, and the constant reminder of this painful history is reflected in the stage design.
Freak show posters, a rope ladder and several pieces of billowed fabric draped from the ceiling create a circus tent-like effect. These efforts are complimented by EPAC’s thrust stage, which creates an experience reminiscent of being in a circus ring.
Connelly is excellent as Treves, embodying the many nuances of this complex character. Megan Riggs is also a standout performer, utterly charming and hilarious as the esteemed actress and society darling Mrs. Kendal.
Mrs. Kendal’s scenes with Merrick are uplifting at times, and heartbreaking at others.
One of the show’s many challenges is the use of a variety of accents. This posed a difficulty occasionally, but the cast’s interpretation of these dialects were largely convincing.
Despite “The Elephant Man” asking so much of the director and cast, EPAC put on a production that’s worthy enough to gawk at - for all the right reasons.