WTF's 'The Elephant Man': Truth finds its light

Thursday August 2, 2012

WILLIAMSTOWN -- There is a sublime moment in the 1982 film comedy, "My Favor ite Year," in which Peter O'Toole as Alan Swan, a swashbuckling big screen hero, proclaims "I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star."

There is no denying that Bradley Cooper is a movie star. His stage experience is limited -- "Three Days of Rain" on Broadway with Julia Roberts, and at Williamstown Theatre Festival in "The Understudy."

Now, Cooper is back at Wil liamstown playing the hideous ly deformed John Merrick in a sold-out run of Bernard Pom erance's "The Elephant Man." For anyone who has any doubts, Mr. Cooper is not just a movie star, he's an actor.

In "The Elephant Man," Merrick (his real-life name was Joseph Merrick) is a Victorian London medical curiosity with an elongated right arm, a twisted keg, a curved spine, bowed legs, puffed skin with cauliflowerlike tumors, and a seriously oversized head whose weight and volume are significant enough to force him to sleep in an upright position.

Rescued from a Victorian freak show and set up in London Hospital by a physician, Frederick Treves, who is interested in Merrick for the purposes of medical research, Merrick becomes the toast of London society after he is befriended by a well-known actress, Mrs. Kendal.


Unlike the literalism of David Lynch's 1980 film in which make-up and prosthetics give us Merrick as he was, Pomer ance is after something else.

As Alessadro Nivola's Treves describes Merrick, Cooper's pristine, solid body, clothed only in snug diaperlike boxer shorts, slowly, almost imperceptibly, bends, twists, turns, contorts. The balance of weight shifts; the mouth compresses. It's the interior Merrick Pomerance is after; the figurative projection of dignity in the face of overwhelming physical challenges that have no hopeful outcome.


Cooper's deftly sculpted Merrick is a gentle, graceful, naive, anything-but-self-pitying mournful soul with self-effacing wit and shrewd observations about a society and culture he knows only from those who visit him in his permanent residence at London Hospital.

Cooper catches an affecting boyish innocence, especially when, in what should be a more poignant moment than what's rendered on the Nikos Stage, Mrs. Kendal (Patricia Clarkson in a performance that, unexpectedly, shows all its seams) generously accommodates Merrick's shy, if also playful, admission that he's never seen a woman naked outside the carnival world that was his life until Treves found him.

Cooper builds his performance with grace and dignity, culminating in a patient, carefully wrought death scene that will tear your heart.

Cooper's performance is no star turn. It is compassionate in its understanding of Merrick; generous and giving in its understanding of working within an ensemble.

Unfortunately, Cooper's ac complishments are very nearly lost amid the trance-inducing torpid atmosphere that surrounds him.


In a production that director Scott Ellis has pitched at far too considered a rhythm, Ni vola especially, too often takes far too much time before re sponding to what's been said to him and when he does it is too often with emotional halfheartedness. He recovered in the second half of the weekend matinee I attended, almost to the point of overcompensation. Even then, Nivola never de fined what Treves is after; what he wants for Merrick and, more important, for himself.

That's not a problem for Coop er. His work here is a model of restraint, smart choices, and clarity. Less may not be practical for many of Cooper's screen roles. Here, less definitely is more.


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