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Emotional freak show

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Bernard Pomerance’s “The Elephant Man” makes the point that a freakish appearance does not define a person.

Exploiting a deformity as a sideshow curiosity in a traveling circus and as a medical prize are major injustices. With that in mind, to encourage seeing the oddity known as the “Elephant Man” at Riverwalk Theatre might seem awkward.

But that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

“The Elephant Man” is a must-see performance, directed by Amy Rickett. Jeff Magnuson plays the real anomaly, Joseph Carey (John) Merrick. Magnuson is the director’s spouse, but the nepotism is completely justified.

Using no make-up or prosthetics, Magnuson transforms into the beast with a beauteous soul.

Staying in character, even in the dark scenes, he uses only movements, expressions, contortions and a distorted voice. As “The Elephant Man” unfolds, Magnuson makes his portrayal — and the character he plays — loveable.

The two-hour play gives a chance for actress Laura Croff to show contrasting facets of her talents. With finesse, she plays the animated and goofy Pinhead #2; the compassionate actress Mrs. Kendal; and the pompous Countess.

The distinctive Eve Davidson also displays her chameleon-like acting skills as the regal Princess Alexandra, confident Nurse Sandwich, the snooty Duchess, and the very peculiar Pinhead #1. The Pinhead duo are scene-stealers.

James Houska is the tormented and conflicted doctor, Frederick Treves. A capable centerpiece of the play, he — like Merrick and most of the characters — becomes more human as the play evolves.

Rickett masterfully assembles shifting scenes and keeps the tension building. Ever-changing, richly detailed, 19th Century outfits by Amanda Macomber look authentic. Furniture and accessories by Sandy Norton fit the period and give a simple set, style.

The meager two columns and riser-with-a-step set by Leroy Cupp seem more appropriate for a limited Black Box stage. English accents are muddled at times. The quick character changes for recognizable actors can sometimes be confusing. None of that is enough to significantly distract from an emotional, often funny and thought-provoking play.

Recordings of original cello music by Molly Kay Rebeck interspersed throughout “The Elephant Man” create moody atmospheres. I liked the addition. I believe there’s always room for cello.


The Elephant Man at Riverwalk

Theatre Tickets starting at $12

Students & Senior tickets start at $10

Thursday, March 21, 7 p.m.

Friday, March 22, 8 p.m.

Saturday, March 23, 8 p.m.

Sunday, March 24, 2 p.m.

228 Museum Dr., Lansing

(517) 482-5700

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