Stage: Strawshop’s The Elephant Man

This production of a ’70s classic is slow but sensitive.

Despite an assortment of directors, an intermittent schedule, and disparate choices of material, Strawberry Theatre Workshop has a style all its own. When they're on, they're daring, penetrating, and endearingly baroque. And when they're off, it's nearly as impressive to watch their visions play out.The gears are definitely grinding in The Elephant Man. There are affecting moments of pathos, and some insight into the torments of ridicule vs. celebrity. (No wonder Michael Jackson wanted those bones.) But the company has trouble keeping playwright Bernard Pomerance's turgid text in forward motion. It's like watching a Final Four game played with a medicine ball.Pomerance's drama about the real-life Joseph Merrick (played here by MJ Sieber) is oddly anachronistic—not because it's set in the late 1880s, but because it seems so much a period piece from the late 1970s, when singer David Bowie famously took over the title role on Broadway. The script constantly nibbles at the edges of revelation, but as with '70s shows Equus and Bent, high concepts (blinding horses, gay concentration-camp romance) often distract from actual character development.In the play, Merrick is subsisting as a sideshow attraction when he's discovered by up-and-coming London surgeon Frederick Treves (David Pichette). At the outset, Treves' interest is medical, but not purely so. Just as Merrick was exploited by carnies as a freak of nature with his bony outgrowths, hideously spongy skin pockets, and grotesquely deformed limbs, Treves rents Merrick from the tent show to display him before an audience of physicians.But after Merrick is beaten by an angry mob, Treves has an attack of his own—one of conscience. And once Treves recasts the Elephant Man as the cause du jour for the upper crust of British society, Merrick has his every financial need met, and begins a new life as Treves' pet project.Or is it simply pet? The doctor frequently acts as a benefactor in attempting to find people who will see Merrick as a human being, while himself unable to shake his fascination with the creature down the hall. Pomerance's play only hints at Treves' vacillations between compassion and self-interest, but Pichette's performance finds spaces for self-reflection, all of which seem to raise the play's central question: If you had a cash cow, could you resist the urge to milk it? Treves' actions are never short of magnanimous—except when he discovers that Merrick and a young actress named Mrs. Kendal (the magnetic Alexandra Tavares) have engaged in a flirtation that offends his Victorian sensibilities.Having seen Sieber play a sweating, manic buffoon in last year's hysterical Guttenberg! The Musical, it's sublimeto watch him deliver a performance that emanates almost exclusively from the eyes. The more you watch him, the more you want to, and his scenes with Tavares will break your heart.Supporting players do double duty in a variety of roles, but anytime the stage is not occupied by two or more of the central trio, the production loses momentum.If director Julie Beckman can generate some heat, or accelerate through the passages in which the pompous docs and society matrons mutter about What It All Means to harbor a circus freak as one might keep a rare butterfly pinned to a wall, then STW will have done the show better than playwright Pomerance has written

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