“Elephant” at Benchmark
“Mom.” this is the first word spoken at the world premiere of “Elephant” at the Benchmark Theater. In fact, “spoken” is incorrect: “shouted” is more like that. “Mom!!!” shouts actor Nnamdi K. Nwankwo, hands raised pleadingly as sirens sound and blue and red lights flash against the white walls of the set. And it is no coincidence that this same word was one of the last uttered by George Floyd as he died below the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020.
For a visceral moment, this echo seemed exploitative to me, there to make us sad, angry, re-traumatized. But the production – led by the company’s new artistic director, Neil Truglio – is well worth its trouble.
Actors Abner Genece and Candace Joice have teamed up with Truglio to design a play that draws on Sir Frederick Treves’ 1923 book “The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences” to tackle a racism that still treats men too often. black like curiosities, monsters or monsters. . This treatment extends to other racially marginalized people, as well as to people with disabilities.
Merrick from Nwankwo had been in an argument with the police when Treves found him. He is bandaged. The less good doctor offers Merrick to take refuge in a wing of a hospital. But is he a guest or an inmate? Dan O’Neill does a good job composing his rendition of Treves to the fullest. It is he who will explain this man to the press, to his scientific colleagues, to the world, all in the most paternalistic way.
Of course, Treves’ kind of research requires customers to foot the bill. Enter Kendal, played by Courtney Esser with both charming and suspicious aplomb. It’s a lot of fun when Kendal puts Treves in his shoes. It’s more pleasant when she assumes an intimacy with Merrick that the circumstances of his near-captivity deny.
There are times when Kendal – by George! – seems to understand the systemic inequity of the situation. But are her willingness to learn and her moments of kindness gestures of empathy or just preludes to an unwanted kiss? This concern hangs over most of Kendal and Merrick’s interactions.
A few years ago, the Phamaly Theater Company put together a very fine production of Bernard Pomerance’s play as a means of investigating disability and the medical establishment. In this production, the female character received a kinder and gentler treatment. But that’s not that game. This work takes Race American-Style, in which even apparent allies still have a lot to figure out about themselves. So if Kendal’s last moments on stage sting, so be it.
Nwankwo’s voice is beautifully sonorous. His posture is imposing but also able to embody the vulnerability of his situation. The actor lets the audience know without a blink of an eye that he is aware of Treves and Kendal’s far-fetched but standardized demands.
The rendering line of “The Elephant Man” (both the play and the movie) resonates even now. He’s still going through a thicket of arrogance and ignorance. The statement “I am not an animal! is scribbled on the wall of the hospital room.
If Merrick’s conversations with Treves and Kendal seem overly patient but also didactic, if his desire to explain himself and his story seem dumb to his listener, well, yeah.
Truglio and his company put on a visually appealing and sometimes intentionally shocking spectacle. In 2019, the director and Benchmark produced a gripping version of George Orwell’s “1984”. In “Elephant”, red is the color of trauma. This production uses a few of the tricks from this show: strobe lights, loud noises, abrupt mood swings, a pre-curtain soundtrack that hints at the horror of a Hitchcock – and possibly Jordan Peele. – vintage.
“Elephant” is the work of a wise team, including production assistant Chantelle Frazier, sound designer Marc Stith and costume designer Daniella Toscano.
After the performance, a friend asked if “Elephant” was science fiction. After all, Merrick reads like quite modern while Treves and Kendal seem to represent – in dress, manners and speech – a century earlier. Yet Kendal also seems to have a huge social network: the Magpies. This is the genius of this collaborative work: we do not all occupy the same spatiotemporal moment in matters of race, power and institutions. It’s a messy continuum.
The opening of his new season with “Elephant” is a deliberate nod to the hectic events that have taken place since Benchmark last hosted in-person shows at his intimate Colfax Avenue theater in Lakewood. “Aftermath” is the common thread of the 2021/2022 season.
While a few local theaters have decided to open with shows that seem to suggest an unfortunate return to business as usual, the more committed companies are addressing the challenges presented by 2020. These issues are, after all, hardly behind. we. It’s good to have creatives who think the best way forward is probably through.
“The elephant.” Developed and designed by Abner Genece, Candace Joice and Neil Truglio. Directed by Truglio. With Nnamdi K. Nwankwo, Dan O’Neill and Courtney Esser. Until October 30. At the Bench at 40 West, 1560 Teller St., Lakewood. benchmarktheatre.com.
Over the past few weeks, Theater Or and the Tattered Cover book store have presented a free webinar series titled “Honoring Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” in concert with the theater company’s production “Sisters in Law ”, by Jonathan Shapiro. This has been a nimble way to engage theatergoers with the issues the play gently raises and also draw legal eagles and court watchers to a theater night.
Directed by Amy Feinberg, “Sisters in Law” is an adaptation of Linda Hirshman’s double biography of the first and second woman to serve on the Supreme Court. Keeping the dance between the characters in this two-handed game, Shapiro makes O’Connor repeat – a few times too many for Ginsburg’s liking – “Never mind that I was the first woman here.” Or that you are the second. What matters is that we are not the last.
This one act takes place on a beautifully efficient setting (by Laura K. Love) which plays with the notion of five. Five chairs, five pillars, five dresses – all signify the decisive number which tilts the court to one side or the other over its decisions. A figure on narrow victories more than on consensus.
Alongside the bench are the desks of each woman. Ginsburg is on the left of the audience, O’Connor on the right, of course, although the play sometimes rejects these forked distinctions.
Reviewers of Hirshman’s 2015 book often praise the author’s account of the two careers that led to O’Connor and Ginsberg landing at the Marble Palace. Shapiro’s play takes care of both of them once they’re there. It might be a loss, but it makes for an entertaining tango of two brilliant minds by two strong performers: Sally Knudsen as O’Connor and A. Lee Massaro as Ginsburg. (The night I saw “Sisters,” double Marcia Darcy was doing an odd job as “Notorious RBG.”)
“Women in power manage power in a way that should make us all want more women in power,” Shapiro told Arizona Jewish Life when her play premiered in Phoenix in 2019. Think of it as a hammer blow .
“Beautiful sisters.” Written by Jonathan Shapiro. Based on Linda Hirshman’s book. Directed by Amy Feinberg. Until October 31 at the John Hand Theater, 7653 E. First Place. firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-802-5122. For the final installment of the October 20 legal reform webinar, please visit tatteredcover.com.
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