It’s an unspoken rule among theater people that when Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 play “The Elephant Man” is performed, the title character — Joseph Merrick, the real-life man known most for his severe physical deformities — is played without the use of prosthetics or costumes.
Ten Bucks Theatre Company will present “The Elephant Man,” its first full-scale production in its new Bangor Mall performance space, this weekend and next. Actor Alan Liam Estes, who plays Merrick, will be abiding by that rule. Rather than an unwieldy prosthetic head, Estes sports a facial grimace throughout the play. His posture is stooped and bent. He walks with a pained shuffle and speaks his lines with an affect.
The overall impact of this sort of portrayal of Merrick is far more effective than using distracting, time-consuming makeup. When other characters react to Merrick with fear and disgust, it’s up to the audience to fill in the rest of the visual picture — his humanity is the crux of the play, which tells the story of Merrick’s journey from exploitation in a traveling freak show, to an attempt at normalcy with the help of a friend, Dr. Frederick Treves (Tyler Costigan, in Ten Bucks’ production).
“Playing this role with honesty is of utmost importance, because you have to showcase the true man that was behind the mask,” Estes said. “Underneath this body was a really sensitive, gentle person, and you have to show that physically. It requires attention at all times. You have to constantly be aware of every single thing you do, physically.”
Estes, 23, who will graduate from UMaine this May with a theater degree, first encountered the play as a college freshman, in a fundamentals of acting class with legendary UMaine theater professor Sandra Hardy — one of the last classes Hardy ever taught at UMaine before her death in June 2014.
Actors have long been attracted to the challenge of playing Merrick. Marquee performers including Bradley Cooper and David Bowie have taken on the role on Broadway, and the 1980 movie — not based on the play, and which did utilize prosthetics — was directed by David Lynch and starred John Hurt in the title role, who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar.
“I fell in love with the play, and I knew one day I wanted to play the part. It’s such a challenge,” Estes said. “When I heard Julie Lisnet was going to direct it for Ten Bucks, I knew I had to try for it. It’s been a completely wild experience that I’m so grateful for.”
Estes has appeared in a number of plays at UMaine over the years, including “The Cherry Orchard” in fall 2015, which is where he met director Lisnet. Lisnet was in a production of “The Elephant” at UMaine in the early 1980s, and for the past 35 years she has wanted to direct it — not just because of the esteem with which the play is held in theater circles, but because she’s attracted to plays based on true stories.
“I think audiences have a much greater emotional connection to a true story, and as actors, we have a much greater responsibility to get it right,” Lisnet said.
Beyond the emotional work of inhabiting a character like Merrick, the role is also physically demanding — Estes has spent hours per day for the past six weeks contorting his body into an uncomfortable posture, which he says has so far only resulted in mild muscle cramps.
“There’s a particular scene where he has to stay in one position for a very long time, and I asked him after the scene was over, ‘Are you OK?’” Lisnet said. “And he said, ‘Yes, it bothers me, but I’m not going to complain about it. Look what this man had to deal with. We have no right to complain.’”
Ten Bucks Theatre Company’s production of “The Elephant Man” will be presented March 28-31 and April 4-7 at their theater space in the Bangor Mall, near the former Sears entrance. All seats are $10 and can be purchased online at tenbuckstheatre.org or at the door.