‘Elephant Man’ stampedes into theater

The banner above the stage reads, “Step in and see! Half man, half elephant. Sensational! Terrifying!” Behind the tan curtain lies the mystery of a grotesque, disfigured man, to which the imagination could envision.

The true story of John Merrick, known as the Elephant Man, has been told for years through theater, film and books. It has won several awards, including a Tony Award for Best Play in 1979.

Merrick, displayed as a carnival sideshow freak, lived his short life through humiliation for his lack of external beauty.

Friday was opening night for “The Elephant Man,” directed by J. Daniel Herring, at the John Wright Theatre in the Speech Arts Building. The show continues through Friday.

Herring read the play of “The Elephant Man” for the first time as a freshman in college for personal reading, but has never seen a theatrical production of the work. Herring, a director for 26 years in his career, including six at Fresno State, said he had held onto this play for many years. He is pleased with the outcome of capturing his vision.

“I was really taken by the whole aspect of acceptance and being who you are. Who you are is on the inside not on the outside,” Herring said.

The director’s notes read: “Beauty is only skin deep. You can’t judge a book by its cover.” “The Elephant Man” is perhaps one of the most touching and passionate plays to examine these universal and timeless themes.”

Dane Oliver, a theater arts major with an emphasis on acting, takes on the leading role of the disfigured, crippled character. But the image of Merrick is left to the viewer’s imagination and perception.

“The style of the show is done in a way that the actor has to portray the role completely with his own body and own voice, without any makeup, without any prosthetics, without any deformity to help him speak differently or any of that. He has to do it all on his own,” Herring said.

Herring said it is to have juxtaposition of what is beautiful and what is not.

Viewers see a young man’s beautiful body. But the actor’s movements and speech show differently, creating an image of a disabled, disfigured body and a grotesque image of what he physically is.

As an audience member, one gets to decide what makes someone beautiful or what makes someone ugly, Herring said. That can be internal or external, he added: “In your mind’s eye, or in your heart or in your head.”

As a carnival sideshow freak Merrick, was always on display and this concept held throughout the production. Through the 21 scenes, “The Elephant Man” was in sight, Herring said he wanted to have the audience see every moment and used living transitions in his production.

“It reinforces that idea what is it like to always be on constant exhibition,” Herring said.

Scene changes flowed seamlessly during the hour, 45-minute play. There are no blackouts during scene changes. It is one continuous flowing piece.

Black-and-white photos of the actual Elephant Man were shown as a visual aid for audiences. Merrick, a shorter man unable to stand straight, stumbled around to walk. He slouched over, held up with the dependency of his cane.

Breanna Blackburn, who is majoring in biology, was in attendance Saturday. Prior to the show, she said she read some background information about “The Elephant Man” and thought it was something she would be interested in watching.

Two friends joined Blackburn for moral support. Ashley Pickett, math major, and Julie Bolme, majoring in music education, said they were looking forward to the production.

Oliver’s performance was a sight to see as he appeared throughout the entire play and as an actor who took grasp of the character’s true gentle and innocent nature.

Pickett said that “even without wearing makeup, the characters all reacted to him. You can get that feeling that he’s supposed to look this bad. It really helped with the show and the way he portrayed being this hideous monster. It’s amazing.”

Oliver’s manipulation of body movements and facial expression helped create the image of the elephant man for Bolme.

“The way his actions and his movements helped us maybe kind of picture what he could be like,” Bolme said.

Herring said, “You really have to look for an actor who really has those skills to be able to pull off both the physical and the vocal work all on their own.”

The misshapen man transformed his image and reveals his true self through his gentle innocent manner and his intellect during the production, Herring said.

Blackburn said that as the play progressed,” the lead character, “got more human as his emotions came off, to me.”

She added that Oliver did an amazing job during his performance.