Review: Indianapolis Civic Theatre’s The Elephant Man

Indianapolis Civic Theatre’s The Elephant Man is an engaging glimpse into the life, ideals, and character of world famous John Merrick. Admittedly, the title character is a bit baffling when conceiving of a staged version of his life. But Chris Goldfarb, as John Merrick a.k.a the Elephant Man, is astounding in his physicality and grasp on Merrick’s personality.

A simple note from playwright, Bernard Pomerance, in the program addresses the physical limitations of theatre in producing a play about a man with severe elephantitis. Pomerance explains, “Merrick’s face was so deformed he could not express any emotion at all. His speech was difficult to understand without practice. Any attempt to reproduce his appearance and his speech naturalistically if it were possible – would seem to me not only counterproductive, but the more remarkably successful, the more distracting from the play.” With this little note of dramaturgy, an audience is left to wonder, “How will Indianapolis Civic Theatre accomplish this?”

The simple answer is with a committed actor, who successfully manipulates his physical body to imitate the deforming limitations that made Merrick a household name. Goldfarb is simply stunning in his portrayal of Merrick, from his gimpish walk to his robotic speech patterns. What is all the more stunning is Goldfarb’s ability to don these distracting attributes and then to effortlessly ask his audience to see through them to the sensitive and tortured man beneath. Goldfarb makes adjusting to the differences of Merrick’s physical deformities like adjusting to Shakespearean speech patterns, within a few scenes you hardly notice a difference.

Of course story of The Elephant Man is one that reflects each of our journeys through life. What made Merrick so positively wonderful was his humanity, brought out remarkably by a supporting cast. As Merrick’s doctor, Frederick Treves, Joshua Ramsey offers a solid performance. He and Carrie Bennet Fedor, as Mrs. Kendal, make a compassionate pairing. Fedor plays an actress who gives Merrick his first conversation with the opposite sex. In a role that is a vast change from past performances in two plays at the 2009 IndyFringe Theatre Festival, Fedor shows great range.

Overall, director Robert J. Sorbera illicits cohesive performances from his entire cast. Sorbera expertly allows Merrick’s story to lead the way, leaving the audience a sense of melancholy sadness sprinkled with a connection to humanity. The scenic elements, by Ryan Koharchik, add a gust of Victorian regalness to the play, while simultaneously presenting the underground world of Victorian England. And costumes by Jean Engstrom are expertly crafted to present both Victorian fashion and society in one scene and to delve into a vastly different, creepy carnival world.

For more information about how to purchase tickets to The Elephant Man at Indianapolis Civic Theatre, visit their website. Located on the campus of Marian University, this Indianapolis theater produces yet another successful piece of art in Indianapolis.

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