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No makeup necessary: Riverwalk takes on ‘The Elephant Man’

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The real Jospeh Merrick and how he's portrayed by Riverwalk's Jeff Magnuson.

The story of Joseph Merrick, one of history’s greatest medical oddities, is getting the Riverwalk Theatre treatment. The play doesn’t aim to shock: Merrick is portrayed without any visual deformities. Rather, it seeks to inspire empathy through his tenacity in the face of his rare condition.

“It’s a great dramatic piece. It’s got some humor in it, it’s empathetic and it’s a compassionate piece of the human condition and human dignity,” director Amy Rickett said.

“The Elephant Man,” the name Merrick was relegated with on circus fliers and marquees, is a fictionalized account of his life that inspires compassion and empathy through the relationship formed between him and his caretaker/doctor Frederick Treves.

But the play itself is a far cry from the exploitation that came to define much of Merrick’s life as a “performer.” Playwright Bernard Pomerance specifically requests in his script that Merrick be portrayed without garish makeup or prosthetics, relying on the actor to communicate his condition sans visual deformities.

“I certainly think it gives an advantage to the production. The actor has the ability to create that disorder through real emotion and the dialogue,” Rickett said.

Rickett’s husband, veteran Riverwalk Theatre actor Jeff Magnuson, will portray Merrick.

“It was definitely one that I knew, loved and was excited to audition for,” Magnusson said. “There’s a vulnerability to Merrick that is attractive to me as an actor. Those types of roles are definitely the things that I look for.”

Magnuson said he is approaching Merrick with a sense of deep respect and empathy, since he — unlike Merrick — is an able-bodied man.

“As an actor you’ve got to imagine many things. I’ve had to imagine myself shooting somebody, and I wouldn’t think of doing that every day,” Magnuson said. “In this instance, I’ve got to portray the deformity that this man had to live with.”

Magnuson’s challenge isn’t just portraying Merrick as a physical entity, but connecting with the pain Merrick felt as an ostracized man, who was abused horribly before finding a friend in Treves (portrayed in this production by James Houska).

“He was isolated, but he was always reaching out. He was always open. I think he was mistreated by the circus world that he was a part of,” Magnuson said. “Yet, what I’m finding through the script is that he’s still not broken by that experience. He’s still open to connecting with other people.”

“The Elephant Man” story has taken on many forms. Pomerance’s original play won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1979 and the otherworldly director David Lynch made his own film adaptation in 1981, starring John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins.

Merrick has been portrayed by an eclectic range of actors, including Mark Hamill and David Bowie. In 2015, “The Elephant Man” received another wave of Tony nominations, thanks in part to a critically acclaimed performance from Bradley Cooper.

It was a New York Times interview with Cooper about his “Elephant Man” performance that re-piqued Rickett’s interest in the classic play. “Just reading about it got me thinking about the play. I thought, ‘Wow, when was the last time that was done here in Lansing?’” Despite its historical setting in late 18th century London, Rickett thinks the lesson of Merrick’s life is timeless and especially relevant in 2019.

“We are so fractured and polarized in so many ways now. Somehow we’ve lost the ability to listen and really hear why someone feels the way they do, or does the things they do,” Rickett explained. “We’re so quick to judge, and Joseph Merrick’s story is really quite similar."


“The Elephant Man”

Tickets start at $10, opens March 14

Riverwalk Theatre, 228 Museum Dr. Lansing

riverwalktheatre.com, (517) 482-5700

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