“The Elephant Man” at Orange Coast College

    For tackling such a demanding project as Bernard Pomerance’s historical drama “The Elephant Man,” Orange Coast College’s theater department deserves an “A” for ambition, but earns only a “C” for clarity.

    Strangely, much of the spoken dialogue of this otherwise powerful production is unclear – seemingly swallowed or garbled by overanxious actors. Nevertheless, some excellent performances emerge from director William Mittler’s emotionally shattering adventure.

    Paramount among these is Michael Canas’ deeply involving portrayal of young surgeon  Frederick Treves, who rescues the title character, John Merrick, from a traveling freak show and offers him safe living quarters at his London hospital. Canas pulls out all the stops in his emotionally draining interpretation.

    In the title role, Abel Diaz must project his hideous deformity without makeup or prosthetics, virtually twisting his body into a rubbery pretzel configuration and speaking in halting dialogue. It’s an admirable performance.

    David Cowan also impresses as the gruff hospital administrator. James Williams overplays the role of the greedy freak show operator, losing chunks of dialogue in the process.

    In a contrasting tender sequence, Madeline Kettlewell offers friendship and comfort as a well-meaning actress, even disrobing to give Merrick his first glimpse of a naked woman. Marcus Beebe adds a note of aggravation as the bishop striving to impose religion into Merrick’s psyche.

    In an absorbing fantasy sequence, the roles of Treves and Merrick are reversed, with Canas assuming the hulking, deformed figure and Diaz rendering a scholarly dissertation on his patient’s condition. It’s Pomerance’s wry observation on the randomness of life and fate.

    Scenic designer David Scaglione has dressed the stage with enormous white curtains, upon which are projected eerie images of the play’s characters, and also has devised some special makeup for Diaz’s interpretation. Cynthia Corley’s period costumes establish the tone of the play splendidly.

    Musically supporting the action on stage is a backstage band – drummer Scott Collins, bassist Dru George, vocalist Maureen Lefevre and guitarist Cameron Good – whose instrumental and vocal punctuation serves the onstage drama well.

    “The Elephant Man” is a tall order for any theater company, particularly that of a college, to attempt and OCC deserves high praise for its effort. Hopefully, the clarification lacking on opening weekend will be restored for this weekend’s final performances.

THE ESSENTIALS:

WHAT: “The Elephant Man”
WHERE: Orange Coast College Drama Lab Theater, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa
WHEN: Closing performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2:30
COST: $10 to $18
CALL: (714) 432-5880

                    – tt –

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