Through their production of “The Elephant Man,” opening this Friday, Feb. 10, theatreVCU seeks to take audience members back to 1880s Victorian London, during a time of freak shows and decadence, in order to ask what it really means to be normal – and what is the cost?
Directed by Casey Biggs, this Tony award-winning play, based on true events, centers around the gruesomely deformed John Merrick, known also as the Elephant Man, and Dr. Federick Treves, the surgeon who saves him from his life as a sideshow attraction and seeks to integrate him into society, with hopes that he may lead a “normal” life. However, as the play moves forward, both Treves and Merrick are brought to question the ideas of normality as well as humanity and what it really means to be accepted.
“One of the main themes is empathy,” said actor Alex Ireys, who plays Lord John. “You can compare it to pop stars. What happens when all the hype is over? Fads come and go; if that interest is in a human being, what happens?”
The original script, written by Bernard Pomerance, was meant for a cast much smaller than VCU’s 18 or so performers, featuring actors from freshmen through seniors. “(The number of performers) is really a lot for any production, be it college or off Broadway,” Ireys said.
It was largely agreed upon that the overall success of the production – as well as any other taken on by theatreVCU – extends largely beyond the talent of the performers breathing life into the script and their respective characters. A great deal of attention has been paid to setting the scene and to the tiniest of details from props to lighting, all the way to period accurate costumes.
“The amount of detail that has gone into costumes really blew my mind,” Ireys said. “I had this one costume, but we realized it’s not the season for that color. Literally (the next day), I had a new costume.
Isabela Tavares, the main costume designer for “The Elephant Man,” started designing for the show as early as September and was developing patterns in November. She made trips to New York City for fabric and, by the end of first semester, had performers doing fittings for their costumes.
“There’s a lot more to fitting than one would expect,” said Gloria Kim, assistant costume designer. “Everything is down to the half inch. You have to consider the neck, the sleeve, chest, waist and more – and that’s just for the men.”
Overall, about 30 people total are responsible for every stitch of clothing worn by the performers, right down to Miss Kindle’s period-accurate undergarments. According to Neno Russell, the costume shop manager, one dress had as many as nine to 10 layers in the construction.
While some of the costumes were pulled from VCU’s stock, many were rented and perhaps even more were built. The costumes of the Duchess, Countess, Princess and Miss Kindle were all designed by Tavares and constructed from scratch by undergraduate students here in the costume shop here at VCU. In addition to this, any piece of furniture that was not already found in storage was constructed especially for the production by VCU students.
One of the greatest challenges of this production, Ireys said, has been setting the tone and the arch of the show.
“It’s a sad story,” he said, “but you don’t want the audience hating that they came to see it. It’s about creating the right aesthetic, drawing the audience in gently and making sure we aren’t forceful with this story.
Other issues faced by the cast include mastering the dialects of the time, portraying a culture that is so obviously not their own, and playing ages beyond their own years.
“I have to play a middle-aged man,” Hall said, “but at the age of 21.”
“I’m proud of it, and I really hope the message gets across,” said Bryan Hall who, aside from playing Ross and understudying for Treves, acts as the assistant director. “Especially for … (any) youth who are out there struggling. It will give you the history, how long this type of discrimination – be it based upon religion, sexuality, physical appearances – has been going on, how important it is to fight by going on living, by being you.”
Feb. 10, 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 11, 7:30 pm
Feb. 12, 3 p.m.
Feb. 16 – 18, 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 19, 3 p.m.
High School Matinees
Feb. 14, 15 – 10 a.m.
$25 general admission
$10 student with valid VCU ID
$20 seniors, VCU faculty and staff
804-828-6026 or vcutheatre.showclix.com
Photos courtesy of VCU Theatre