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Amazing Story, Amazing Theater

While I was familiar with the story of Joseph Merrick, a man known for his extreme deformity in 19th-century London, I never had the opportunity to see the David Lynch film or Bernard Pomerance play about his life. I was able to to cross one of the versions off my list as I sat in the audience at the opening night of “The Elephant Man” at the Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck. The play follows Merrick as he goes from working at a freak show (complete with strong man, bearded lady and “pinheads”) to living out the rest of his life at London Hospital after being discovered by a surgeon, Frederick Treves. The highlight of the show is Michael J. Frohnhoefer’s performance as Merrick. As is customary with this play, Frohnhoefer wears no prosthetic makeup (neither did actors such as Mark Hamill and David Bowie in previous productions). Instead, he contorts his body throughout the two-hour run time to convey Merrick’s deformities.Frohnhoefer’s skill in this regard is demonstrated in one of the play’s early scenes. In it, Treves, played wonderfully by Thomas L. Webb (who also impressed me in the Center’s production of “Doubt” in October 2012), delivers a lecture describing Merrick’s condition. A picture of the real Merrick hangs behind them, allowing the audience to truly see why he was known as “The Elephant Man.” As Treves discusses each part of Merrick’s deformity, Frohnhoefer transforms that portion of his body. He tilts his head, curves his mouth, holds up his arm, hunches down, twists his feet and grabs a cane with his one good hand. The actor becomes Merrick before our eyes, no makeup necessary. Frohnhoefer also has great timing for both drama and comedy. As freak show manager Ross (played by Johnny Dell) kicks Merrick out of the show and steals his savings, Frohnhoefer limps after him, crying and lost. Needless to say, it’s an incredibly sad scene. Later, as Merrick is meeting new people at the hospital, he cracks jokes that elicit a full laugh from the audience every time. And later, during a dream sequence, keep an eye out for Frohnhoefer’s take on a Merrick without deformities. They could be mistaken as different characters played by different actors, which is a testament to Frohnhoefer’s craft. The entire cast demonstrates how their characters are reflected in Merrick, despite his appearance. From matter-of-fact hospital administrator Dr. Carr-Gomm (John Adair) to Madge Kendal (Deborah Coconis), an actress hired to converse with Merrick, they all see a bit of themselves in “The Elephant Man.” I’m sure that by the time the curtain falls, the members of the audience feel the same way. “The Elephant Man” is playing at the Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck Jan. 18 to 20 at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m., Sunday. Tickets: $22 adults, $20 seniors. Call 845-876-3080 or go to www.centerforperformingarts.org.

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