Georgia Ensemble Theatre’s ‘The Elephant Man’ tells tortured tale of John Merrick

Although they differ dramatically in scope and content, two current shows in the ATL deal with classic outsiders. Both also feature a prominent gay artist in their cast and crew.

Georgia Ensemble Theatre is about to open the drama “The Elephant Man,” directed by out director David Crowe. It’s the true story of John Merrick, the Englishman of the Victorian era who had facial and body deformities resulting from rare bone and skin diseases. He was a performer in circus sideshows until he came under the care of physician Frederick Treves.

Although Crowe had never seen the play, he knew the sad tale of Merrick.

“It’s a unique and tortured story,” he says. “In Victorian England, everything was so tied up in this implied kind of morality, how people lived their life. When people saw him they didn’t know what to think. It’s interesting to think what people in that society must have thought. They would not have known anything about him.”

Even though he was taken in by Treves, Merrick remained an outsider.

“In this society there was no place at the table for him. His condition got so bad, people who saw him wanted to kill him,” Crowe says.

“He didn’t have the rights anyone else did. It was an oppressive society. The social community became interested in him in a philanthropic way, but what the play does so beautifully is ask the question—just by bringing someone into an environment, does it mean giving them the same rights? They instruct John Merrick on how to behave but in the end they still don’t treat him like everyone else.”

Crowe does feel in today’s society Merrick would not have had to deal with the same level of stigma.

“The Elephant Man” opened on Broadway in 1979 and won the Tony Award for Best Play. David Lynch later turned it into a film. Georgia Ensemble Theatre secured the rights to the play just in time. A few weeks later, the Bradley Cooper revival was announced on Broadway and any future productions were halted.

“We might be one of the last productions in the country going on because of that,” Crowe says.

He considers it daring fare for Georgia Ensemble Theatre.

“(Artistic directors) Bob and Anita Farley do a great job of walking a tightrope,” he says. “It’s largely a Roswell audience, a slightly older audience, much more conservative in the artistic sense,” Crowe says. “They do a great job of doing work that is interesting for actors that is challenging and interesting that their community will respond to. But this is a little farther outside their wheelhouse. It’s a dark, dense play.”

In the stage version, makeup is not used for Merrick. It’s up to the actor (Jonathan Horne is GET’s production) to suggest the physical challenges.
“It is much more implied, more theatrical,” says Crowe. “For me it’s an interesting and lovely choice.”

One of the actors in the current national tour of “The Phantom of the Opera” is openly gay Edward Staudenmayer.. He plays Monsieur André, the owner of the onstage theater.

Like “The Elephant Man,” the musical centers around someone from the outside misunderstood by others. “The music is so lush and theatrical, so sweeping and memorable,” S says. “We like drama. This is bigger than life, a spectacle, with flash and divas. It’s been running for 25 years and it’s a beautiful production.”

Staudenmayer has been with the national tour for a year now and is in no hurry to move on.

The performer was supposed to come to the Fox Theatre last season with the national tour of “Anything Goes,” but Theater of the Stars closed before that could happen. A UCLA graduate, he has been seen on Broadway in “Wonderland” and “Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me.” His longest gig, however, has been with “Forbidden Broadway,” an off-Broadway revue he has been involved with for 19 years.

“The Elephant Man”
Georgia Ensemble Theatre
Roswell Cultural Arts Center
950 Forrest St., Roswell, GA 30075
Oct. 30 – Nov. 16

“The Phantom of the Opera”
Fox Theatre
660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta, Georgia 30308
Through Nov. 2