Ten Bucks Theatre Company makes a triumphant comeback from last summer’s disappointing “Macbeth” with a well executed and finely acted production of “The Elephant Man” at its new space in a former clothing store at the Bangor Mall.
“The Elephant Man,” written by American playwright Bernard Pomerance, was first performed in 1977. It won a Tony Award two years later. A recent revival starring Bradley Cooper and Patricia Clarkson played to sold-out houses in London.
The story is based on the life of Englishman Joseph Merrick, who is named John in the play. He suffered from deformities that led to his being displayed in a circus as the Elephant Man. Merrick was rescued in 1884 by Dr. Frederick Treves and spent the rest of his life living in London Hospital.
Merrick died in 1890 at the age of 27.
Director Julie Arnold Lisnet gets nuanced performances from her cast and uses the narrow space to its best advantage. Her focus on Merrick’s humanity allows the audience to identify with the man’s struggles in a world that could not see past his grotesque exterior. She draws subtle performances from every member of the cast but especially from Alan Liam Estes as Merrick.
Estes, who will graduate from the University of Maine in May, plays Merrick without makeup or prosthetics, as the playwright intended. The actor contorts his face and body into unnatural positions that sometimes are painful to watch.
What makes his performance so compelling is the kind, loving and curious soul he shows the audience and the pain he portrays in relating past indignities. While Estes has given fine performances in UMaine productions, nothing he’s done so far has allowed him to expose the soul of a character as he does in “The Elephant Man.”
As Dr. Treves, Tyler Costigan is barely recognizable from his recent portrayal of Brick in True North Theatre’s production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Treves represents the mores of Victorian society that allowed Merrick to become friends with an actress and a bishop but prevented him from engaging a prostitute to explore his sexuality.
Costigan’s doctor is a tightly wound spring unable to shed society’s shackles and allow Merrick a full life. The actor deftly portrays Treves’ inner turmoil at science’s inability to offer Merrick a reason or a cure for his deformities.
The surprise performance in “The Elephant Man” comes from Neil E. Graham as Ross, the man who exploits Merrick’s condition for his own gain. Graham gives the carnival barker a semblance of humanity as Ross begs Merrick to go out on the road with him so he can make a living. Even in rejecting Ross, Estes’ Merrick shows kindness.
Ron Lisnet as Carr Gomm, the head of the hospital where Merrick lives, Aimee Gerow as the actress Mrs. Kendal who befriends the Elephant Man, and Mark Bilyk as the bishop who oversees Merrick’s spiritual growth, give equally fine performances.
Michelle Handley’s exquisite costumes help define the time in which the story takes place and each character. The sparse set and limited lighting allows the production to focus on the performances.
The problems with “The Elephant Man” are minor and stem from the short scenes at the beginning of the play that require scene and costume changes that slow down the show’s momentum.
A bigger concern is the ability of the audience to see what is happening on the stage in this new space. Ten Bucks needs to build or buy risers so theatergoers in the back half of the house don’t have crane their necks to see what’s happening on stage.
“The Elephant Man” is a fine first chapter in the next phase of Ten Bucks Theatre Company’s evolution.
“The Elephant Man” will be performed at 7 p.m. Thursday through Sunday at the Bangor Mall. For information, visit tenbuckstheatre.org or the company’s Facebook page.