Mitch Ellis-Yapp Makes THE ELEPHANT MAN Marvelous

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The cast of THE ELEPHANT MAN, Nov. 5-8, 12-15 at The Looking Glass Playhouse. Photo Credit: Gigi Dowling Urban

For many of us, I suspect our first exposure to the bizarre, grotesque world of “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” sort of human oddity is The Elephant Man. Born Joseph Merrick but commonly referred to as John due to some confusion from his physician’s memoir, The Elephant Man is still a medical mystery. He’s been the subject of both film and stage, the latter originating in the form of a play by Bernard Pomerance. THE ELEPHANT MAN is now playing through November 15 at the charming Looking Glass Playhouse in Lebanon, Illinois, a reasonably short drive east from St. Louis. If you appreciate strong acting and stirring human drama, the show is most certainly worth the trip.

Mitch Ellis-Yapp is John Merrick, as he’s referred to in the play. The show begins with Merrick as the attraction of a dingy Whitechapel Road exhibition under the management of a shady showman named Ross (Patrick Donmigan). He’s quickly shuffled off from London to Belgium and back, mistreated and battered at every stop. He’s clad in a heavy cloak, a crude mask covering his deformed head. We don’t see Mitch at all until he’s left in the care of Dr. Frederick Treves (Daniel Schmid). Treves manages to overcome his natural instinct of revulsion and develop a friendship with Merrick over time. Merrick wasn’t able to care for himself easily, and required several long baths to eliminate years of stench, so Mitch spends a good portion of the first act half-naked in a bath tub positioned stage right on the perfectly simple set designed by the talented Robert Lippert. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as the actor wore no prosthetics to replicate Merrick’s severe deformities. When Treves ticks off the laundry list of Merrick’s maladies, Mitch absolutely transforms himself. He contorts his right hand, deeply bows his back, and affects a rigid walk with a crooked hip. He screws up his face so that he can only talk out of the left side of his mouth. His voice rings out loud and clear, with a bit of an over-pronunciation that clues the audience into the effort it took for the real Merrick to move and communicate.

The London Hospital where Merrick comes to reside cannot afford his upkeep without help, so Treves’ boss, hospital chairman Carr Grom (Len Adams) puts an ad in the London Times to describe Merrick’s plight. He received an incredible outpouring of support and the financial gifts allowed Merrick to live out the rest of his days as a resident of the hospital. It was an ironic existence, as his patronage was more or less simply a higher form of the same exhibition he had endured on Whitechapel. Among his patrons, some of whom he came to regard as friends, were Bishop How (Mike Russell), various noblemen and women (Dyan “The Duchess” Hansen, Rachel “The Countess” Mullis, Brandon “Lord John” McNutt) and even Princess Alexandra of Denmark who would eventually wed The Prince of Wales. While they were kind to him and Merrick was seemingly grateful for their company, these visits were not entirely selfless. Then there was Mrs. Kendal (Melanie Kozak), an actress of some renown who became a regular visitor, at least until she bared herself to Merrick and was swiftly tossed from the hospital by Dr. Treves.  As Merrick begins to decline in health, Treves finds himself troubled by deeper questions of both morality and mortality. A very interesting dream sequence showed Treves imagining himself as the subject of Merrick’s study, juxtaposing the actors and their roles from the same scene in act 1. It really helped bring the story to a strong close, showing the humanity of Merrick and the extent to which he touched the lives of his caregivers. Sometimes all it takes is a little basic human kindness to draw a man from his monstrous shell.

Melanie Kozak was the only member of the cast whom I’ve had the pleasure of covering before, in shows such as THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE and most recently DOGFIGHT. While her gorgeous singing voice wasn’t needed this evening, Melanie’s acting and stage presence was on full display.  She held a lovely lilting accent through her performance and captivated with her grace and nerve. Even though the audience couldn’t see anything from their vantage point, disrobing in front of a bunch of strangers night after night takes serious guts. After the show, I heard several people in the audience murmuring positively about her performance, and the trio of regular patrons seated behind me asked, “Wasn’t she just delightful?” I readily agreed with their assessment. I thought everyone in the cast did a fine job, and Daniel Schmid was quite good as Treves. If you look up Joseph Merrick on Wikipedia you’ll see that he rather looks like the good doctor, right down to the mustache. Mike Russell’s portrayal of Bishop How was fine, but I’d dearly love to see him play a crazy “fire & brimstone” preacher sometime—there is a certain quality to both his voice and his look—perhaps it’s the tight beard—that is both comforting and a rather menacing. I want to make special mention of Cathy Symond, the costume designer who did a terrific job with the highs and lows of 19th Century English fashon. The real Frederick Treves and Mrs. Kendal wish they looked as terrific as Daniel Schmid and Melane Kozak did on this stage.

Of course the star of this show is the Elephant Man himself, Mitch Ellis-Yapp. As I said earlier, Mitch’s transformation was simply amazing. Even without the use of grotesque stage makeup and prosthetics his movements were sometimes difficult to watch, so you can only imagine what it must feel like to purposefully contort yourself the way Mitch did. I know, dealing with my own back issues, I’d never attempt it! I spoke with him briefly after the show and was surprised (I don’t know why—he is an actor after all) to find that his natural speaking voice was so different from his Merrick persona. The physical demands of his part are reason alone to make the trip to the Looking Glass Playhouse in Lebanon, Illinois to witness THE ELEPHANT MAN yourself. Mitch follows the likes of David Bowie, Mark Hamill and Bradley Cooper who have played the demanding part of Merrick and he has, in my opinion, earned his place among those stars.

Director Kathleen Dwyer has put together one heck of an entertaining show. Make plans to catch the final weekend of performances November 13-15 by ordering your tickets in advance. Visit www.LookingGlassPlayhouse.com for more information about THE ELEPHANT MAN and upcoming shows AVENUE Q, THE GLASS MENAGERIE and FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.

Grade: 
5.0 / 5.0