In a community where opinions and perceptions among members are generally in line, the theater department is hoping the spring mainstage production of “The Elephant Man” challenges the audiences’ true views of others.
“It’s all about human dignity, the value of human life and understanding people and loving them for who they are and not for who you want them to be,” said senior Nicholas Vicinanzo.
“The Elephant Man,” by Bernard Pomerance, is a historical drama about Joseph Merrick, renamed John in the stage production. Merrick, portrayed by Vicinanzo, was a member of the Victorian era traveling freak shows. He was especially known for his extreme physical deformity earning him the nickname “elephant man.” Dr. Frederick Treves, portrayed by junior Gregory Demary, takes Merrick from the shows to a hospital where he studies Merrick and ultimately befriends him, said director John Walker, Franciscan University drama professor.
The production is set in the mind of Treves as he encounters Merrick as a human being with value which can be found in his humanness, unlike his freak show bosses who uses his deformity for financial gain.
“It will be very different than anything else we have seen at Franciscan,” said Demary. “It’s a message for this campus. There are tons of different groups of people and this play is a way that we can challenge our own perceptions and not see someone for their household, or sport, or major, but for them as an individual.”
John Merrick’s deformities included hip disease, curved spine, deformed head, an extra bone in his face, and a deformed right arm. To portray him, Vicinanzo, an athletic, tall-built man, requires no make-up or prosthetics. He walks with a hobble, twists his face, and wraps his left hand and arms into an unnatural position.
Vicinanzo holds the position for the entire duration of the play, which he said isn’t easy, but “in the moment” he doesn’t notice the discomfort. The real challenge, he said, is trying to relate to Merrick as someone who was not accepted by society.
“It took a lot of humility to recognize that I don’t know what this person has been through,” he said. “When someone looks at him, they scream because they feel such disgust and repulsiveness. The most challenging part has been for me to try and find ways to understand what that is like. It can be kind of draining. That is the biggest struggle, but also the most believable part of the show.”
The play also presents its challenges on the tech side as it is the among the most complicated main stage productions that department has taken on, said stage manager Giovanni Stroik. The show features 8 different sets, over 90 light cues, and is Franciscan’s first mainstage play to use a projector.
The show will also feature a new custom-designed fly system, said Stroik, a sophomore at Franciscan. Anathan Theater was originally built to be an auditorium, not a theater, so the ceilings are not high enough for a standard theater fly system. However, Walker and Stroik hope to use the new custom-built system for future shows. It also uses the new computer-based playback system for sound and the projector, replacing CD players and allowing “pinpoint accuracy for cues,” said Stroik.
Because the play is a “dream play,” said Walker, he set up an illusion on the set, surrounding the room with mirrors to give the freak show feel.
“(The production) is like going on a ride into someone else’s brain to discover the importance of human dignity,” said Walker. “Although freak show carnival rides can be scary (the audience) will come out with a better understanding of how important it is to treat people in a way that our Catholic social teaching asks us to.”
The show is a dramatic turn after the department featured Shakespeare’s comedies “Twelfth Night” in Spring 2016 and “Much Ado About Nothing” in the fall of 2016. Department chair Monica Anderson told Walker that she hoped to see the department put on a hard-hitting drama for the spring main stage production. With that in mind, Walker read an article arguing that “The Elephant Man” took “a journey into Catholic social teaching,” he said.
“I remember seeing ‘The Elephant Man’ years ago in London and thinking that I’d like to direct that piece,” said Walker. “Then the election happened as well as all the outbreaks and I got to thinking that this is pretty timely about the dignity of the human soul and not judging each other based on the demographics.”
The Elephant Man will be performed on March 31 and April 1, 7, and 8 at 7:00 p.m., and April 2 and 9 at 2:00 p.m. in Anathan Theatre in the ground floor of Egan Hall. Tickets cost $4 for adults and $2 for students and seniors. Admission is free for clergy, religious, and children ages 12 and under.
“This play is all about showing us that when there is someone who is not like us, what do we do?” said Vicinanzo. “Do we try to make him like us or do we love him for who he is? It tells us that no matter what people believe, they all have dignity and worth.”