Born with a Trunk

Poor Dion Johnson. Surrounded by other "actors," he's nonetheless left all alone to make his way through two acts of The Elephant Man. That he turns in a spectacular performance and walks off with every minute of the show would be more impressive if he happened to share the stage with other worthy performers. With a single exception, the amateurish cast merely wanders past Johnson as he emotes magnificently on a tiny stage in a Scottsdale storefront that smells more than a little like a dirty ashtray.

This is where Theatrescape is presenting Bernard Pomerance's lyrical, disturbing biography of John Merrick, the real-life "elephant man" of the title. In this version of the story, Merrick, a 19th-century Englishman afflicted with a disfiguring congenital disease, is rescued by kindly Dr. Frederick Treves and attempts to regain the dignity he lost after years spent as a sideshow freak.

Tim Butterfield's smartly austere set design -- a set of drapes and a short stairway encrusted with the sort of lumps and lesions with which Merrick was himself covered -- is crowded with weekend actors who struggle to bring life to a long list of supporting roles. Suzanne Embry portrays an actress, although she's clearly never been one. Burdened with hauling Hayley Larsen's cheaply shiny costumes to and fro, she winds up a mannequin for Larsen's thrift store chic. Embry even manages to bungle playing a freak show pinhead, which she's called on to do at various points in the show. Slade Hall works at making Dr. Frederick Treves into an uptight aristocrat, but succeeds only in making him annoying and dull. Christopher Mascarelli provides the only passable supporting performance, conveying a certain spiteful desperation as a cruel Cockney sideshow barker.Stephanie Krueger's first foray into direction is distinguished by oddball blocking that finds actors squeezing past one another to get to invisible doorways, yet avoiding the real exits provided by the stage. A dialect coach is listed in the program, but she apparently forgot to show up for work; the transient accents of these Britishers suggest that they're from England by way of West Covina.

While the supporting players are struggling with Cockney burrs and pressing up against one another to make exits, Johnson quietly slips away with the show. With little more than his stance, the twist of his head and hand, and the most subtly theatrical diction, he flees with the title role and proves that he's capable of more than the musical comedy fluff he's usually assigned. I was impressed by the subtle differences in Johnson's performance during the dream sequence, where his posture and carriage change ever so slightly to indicate his fantasy of a normal life. Johnson gives Merrick an annoying vocal trick -- it sounds as if he swallowed a metronome -- that may be historically accurate but nonetheless distracts from his otherwise fine performance.

It's a performance that's all but swallowed up by the mediocrity surrounding it. This production of The Elephant Man doesn't end so much as sputter to a close, again thanks to Krueger's sleepy, inadequate direction. It's a bittersweet finale to a solid performance that's worth seeing all the same.

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