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The phrase “hands-on” kept occurring to me in playhouses this weekend, and not just because the stage is a handmade enterprise. In an era when technology inflects nearly everything else in the dramatic arts, when circuses and horse shows are multimedia, when a film’s merit is determined largely by its director’s mastery of things technical, theater’s dependence on the hand-to-hand—on the intimate, physical connection between actor and actor, actors and audience—offers a welcome respite.
Which is not really why I was thinking of hands-on contact at this week’s openings. What brought the phrase to mind was a handshake that was carefully built up to by author, director, and actors to remarkably little effect at Olney Theatre and a handprint in a performance at the Warehouse Theater that colored a whole evening but was so unaccented that it might well have been unintentional.
Start with the latter—a rosy bruise on the shoulder of a young girl whose flirtation with a seeming sweetheart of a guy in Rebecca Gilman’s The Glory of Living leads her down roads no 15-year-old should ever travel. Lisa (Casie Platt) is a fresh-faced adolescent when Clint (Clay Steakley) comes into her life, sweet-talking her into kissing him while his buddy is having sex with her mother behind a bedsheet that Mom has hung across their one-room Tennessee shack to give her customers a little privacy.
Clint’s a charmer—sexy, smooth, confident—and Lisa is guessing he’ll be her ticket out of adolescent boredom when she hops into his truck, clutching a broken toy piano that afternoon. We next see them two years later, romping naked in a hotel room, still clearly infatuated. But when Lisa—now 17 and a mother herself—asks her husband for another round of lovemaking, his mood abruptly darkens. Grabbing her from behind and yanking her head back painfully by the hair, he lets her know that they’ll “do it” when he wants to, not when she demands. She retreats to the bathroom until he calms down.
Long minutes later, I saw the handprint on her shoulder—a red welt testifying starkly to the altercation that was the first hint that Lisa’s life had gone seriously off-track. But it was hardly the only hint. Even before Lisa returned to the room, Clint had pulled a younger girl from under the motel bed, her ankle shackled, her body limp and motionless. “I got a taste for somethin’ diff’rent,” he will later allow, an understatement of heroic proportions as later scenes will establish.
Lisa’s involvement in his sexcapades turns out to be more complicated than it initially appears, and by the second act, when the police are eliciting entirely causal testimony from her about Drano-filled syringes and bodies plunging off cliffs, you may find yourself clinging to memories of that hand-shaped welt on her shoulder. She was afraid, right? She had no choice, just went along with that monster she married. Look at her, still clutching her toy piano, so childlike as she nervously answers an interrogator’s questions, speaking unselfconsciously of what they’ve done—what she’s done—as they’ve careened almost unnoticed on a rape and murder spree through the rural South.
Gilman’s rip-snorting who-dun-what plotting makes a bigger initial impression than her unforced dialogue, which has the virtue of feeling natural in unnatural circumstances. The characters tend to watch what they say because they’re generally hiding something, but not in a way that particularly heightens speech patterns. Still, you can’t help hanging on every word as Platt and Steakley send them ricocheting around the tight confines of Colin K. Bills’ seedy claustrophobia-inducing motel rooms. Michael Chamberlin’s pulse-quickening production uses that setting and the restricted worldviews of the characters to unnerving effect, pushing us into close contact with folks we’d increasingly like to be farther away from.
Platt’s been having quite a year limning innocence—her clueless neighbor in Signature Theater’s The Sex Habits of American Women prompted laughs when she erupted in a fit of the giggles at the mere mention of sex. When Platt giggles in Glory of Living during one of Lisa’s Act Two interrogations, the effect is considerably more harrowing. She’s nicely paired with D.C. newcomer Steakley, who is alternately seductive and scary, chest and arms festooned with elaborate tattoos, eyes flashing dangerously.
Also affecting, in a large cast without any real weak links, are Paloma Ellis as that doomed child in shackles, Joshua Drew as a wounded survivor who craves vengeance, and Christopher Poverman as a court-appointed lawyer who is determined to understand Lisa’s mind-set long after that hand-shaped welt on her shoulder has been covered by a prison jumpsuit.
Which brings us to the handshake—one of many artful set pieces in The Elephant Man, Bernard Pomerance’s elegantly conceived, literary freak show about a different sort of prisoner in Victorian England.
Those who’ve seen David Lynch’s 1980 film (which was not adapted from the Broadway play) will recall that the story involves a man, John Merrick, afflicted with Proteus syndrome, a rare disorder that twisted his spine and caused his head and the limbs on the right side of his body to grow to monstrous proportions. Abandoned by his parents, he lived for years as a carny attraction before being rescued by Dr. Frederick Treves, who housed him in a London hospital.
Onscreen, the title character is mostly clothed, his head covered with a burlap mask, but the play calls for Merrick to be depicted without prosthetics or disfiguring makeup, so actor Scott Fortier, like many an elephant man before him, twists his body and his face at Olney Theatre, as Treves (Christopher Lane) describes Merrick’s afflictions, allowing the audience to imagine the horrific details, as others react violently to the sight of him. Treves invites a leading actress of the day, Mrs. Kendal (Valerie Leonard) to visit Merrick and give him a taste of polite society, and she ends up charmed by Merrick’s gentle nature and wit. Theirs is a Beauty and the Beast story, and it begins with that handshake.
Much is made of Treves’ explanation that while Merrick’s right hand is grotesque and misshapen, his left hand is normal, “almost feminine,” and the doctor asks that Mrs. Kendal shake it, instead, as she leaves him. In previous productions I’ve seen, either Merrick proffers his theoretically palsied right hand, or Kendal chooses to take it, which makes one or the other of them seem bold and fills the moment with emotion. At Olney, at the final preview performance last Friday, Leonard took Fortier’s left hand, and there was no such frisson. The two were simply shaking hands, a bit awkwardly.
Much of the rest of the evening felt similarly unremarkable, though the performances—particularly those of Fortier and Lane, and James Konicek’s carny barker/bishop/orderly—seem deft. Jim Petosa’s staging, an expansion of one he did for tiny Catalyst Theater Company last season, is crisp but not terribly affecting, and it’s hard to escape the feeling that part of the problem is that in moving from Spartan digs at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop to the larger, cushier Olney Theatre, this Elephant Man has become a little like a carny sideshow on steroids. Where the original had funhouse mirrors reflecting the faces of a crowd crammed into a low-ceilinged space with perhaps 50 seats, Jon Savage’s setting at Olney has sleek glass panels stretching two stories high, and mirroring an audience nearly 10 times as large.
The panels slide elegantly, if not to much purpose, as Charlie Morrison’s lighting streams through a changeable array of slatted openings suggesting windows in hospitals, lecture halls, and cathedrals. People glide with similar grace over the mirrored floor—all except Fortier’s gnarled, twisted title character, who shuffles and scrapes, dragging one foot as he moves from the sideshow where he’s a curiosity for the masses to the hospital where he’s a curiosity for the well-heeled. A whoosh of dry-ice fog signals a train arriving at a station. A shaft of light illuminates an oboist playing at stageside. Everything looks great.
Things don’t sound great, however, and I’m going to guess that’s because all those sleek glass panels are screwing up the hall’s acoustics. I was straining to hear dialogue from my seventh-row seat, as much of the audience seemed to be doing the same in a house that’s intimate enough that straining shouldn’t be necessary. The humor of the play (and there’s usually plenty) was more or less eviscerated, the emotions just didn’t play, and the hand, like the one offered to Mrs. Kendal, was decidedly modest.CP