“Elephant” at Benchmark
“Mama.” that’s the first word spoken in Benchmark Theatre’s riling and deftly performed world premiere of “Elephant.” Actually, “spoken” is inaccurate: “cried out” is more like it. “Mama!!!” shouts actor Nnamdi K. Nwankwo, hands raised beseechingly as sirens can be heard and blue-and-red lights flash against the set’s white walls. And it is not by accident that that same word was one of the last spoken by George Floyd as he lay dying beneath the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020.
For one visceral moment, this echo struck me as exploitative, there to make us sad, angry, retraumatized. But the production — directed by the company’s new artistic director, Neil Truglio – earns its pointed pain.
Actors Abner Genece and Candace Joice joined forces with Truglio to devise a piece that leverages Sir Frederick Treves’ 1923 book “The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences” in order to grapple with a racism that still too often treats Black men as curiosities, freaks or monsters. That treatment extends to others who are racially marginalized, as well as people with disabilities.
Nwankwo’s Merrick had had a run-in with the police when Treves found him. He’s bandaged. The not-so-good doctor offers Merrick refuge in a wing of a hospital. But is he a guest or an inmate? Dan O’Neill does a good job dialing up his portrayal of Treves to full pomposity. It is he who will explain this man to the press, his scientific colleagues, the world — all in the most paternalistic of ways.
Of course, Treves’ sort of research requires patrons to foot the bill. Enter Kendal, played by Courtney Esser with an aplomb both charming and suspect. It’s great fun when Kendal puts Treves in his place. It’s more enjoyable when she assumes an intimacy with Merrick that the circumstances of his near captivity bely.
There are moments when Kendal — by George! — appears to be grasping the systemic inequity of the situation. But is her willingness to learn and her moments of kindness gestures of empathy or merely preludes to an unwanted kiss? That concern hangs over most of Kendal and Merrick’s interactions.
A few years back, Phamaly Theatre Company mounted a very fine production of the Bernard Pomerance play as a way of investigating disability and the medical establishment. In that production, the female character received kinder and gentler treatment. But this is not that play. This work takes on Race American-Style, in which even seeming allies have a great deal yet to grasp about themselves. So, if Kendal’s final moments onstage sting, so be it.
Nwankwo’s voice is beautifully sonorous. His posture is imposing but also good at embodying the vulnerability of his situation. The actor lets the audience know without winks that he’s aware of Treves’ and Kendal’s outlandish yet normalized demands.
The rending line from “The Elephant Man” (both play and film) even now rings out. It still tromps through a thicket of arrogance and cluelessness. The declaration “I am not an animal!” is scrawled on the hospital room wall.
If Merrick’s conversations with Treves and Kendal seem overly patient but also didactic, if his desire to explain himself and his history appears dumbed down for his listener, well, yeah.
Truglio and company have delivered a show that is visually engaging and at times willfully jarring. In 2019, the director and Benchmark produced a riveting version of George Orwell’s “1984.” In “Elephant,” red is the color of trauma. This production utilizes a few of that show’s tricks: strobing lights, loud noises, abrupt mood shifts, a pre-curtain soundtrack that hints at horror of a Hitchcock — and maybe Jordan Peele — vintage.
“Elephant” is the work of a savvy team, among them production assistant Chantelle Frazier, sound designer Marc Stith and costume designer Daniella Toscano.
After the performance, a friend asked if “Elephant” was sci-fi. After all, Merrick reads as utterly modern while Treves and Kendal seem to represent — in dress, in manner and elocution — an earlier century. Yet Kendal also appears to have a vast social media following: the Magpies. This is the genius of this collaborative work: We are not all occupying the same space-time moment when it comes to race, power and institutions. It’s a messed-up continuum.
Opening its new season with “Elephant” is a deliberate nod to the roiling events that took place since Benchmark last staged in-person shows in its intimate theater off Colfax Avenue in Lakewood. “Aftermath” is the 2021/2022 season’s guiding theme.
While a few local theaters have decided to open with shows that seem to suggest a vexing return to business as usual, the most engaged companies are drilling down into the challenges presented by 2020. Those troubles are, after all, hardly behind us. It’s good to have creatives who believe that the best way forward is likely through.
“Elephant.” Developed and devised by Abner Genece, Candace Joice and Neil Truglio. Directed by Truglio. Featuring Nnamdi K. Nwankwo, Dan O’Neill and Courtney Esser. Through Oct. 30. At the Bench at 40 West, 1560 Teller St., Lakewood. benchmarktheatre.com.
For the last several weeks, Theatre Or and the Tattered Cover Book Store have been presenting a free webinar series called “Honoring Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” in concert with the theater company’s production of “Sisters in Law,” by Jonathan Shapiro. It’s been a nimble way to engage theatergoers with the issues the play gently raises and likewise lure legal eagles and court watchers into a night of theater.
Directed by Amy Feinberg, “Sisters in Law” is an adaptation of Linda Hirshman’s dual biography of the first and the second woman to sit the Supreme Court. Keeping the dance between the characters in this two-hander spry, Shapiro has O’Connor repeat — a few too many times for Ginsburg’s liking — “It doesn’t matter that I was the first woman here. Or that you’re the second. What matters is that we’re not the last.”
This one-act unfolds on a handsomely efficient set (by Laura K. Love) that plays with the notion of five. Five chairs, five pillars, five robes – all signify the deciding number that tilts the court one way or the other on its rulings. A number about narrow victories more than consensus.
To the sides of the bench are the offices of each woman. Ginsburg’s on the audience left, O’Connor’s on the right, naturally — though the play occasionally rebuffs those bifurcated distinctions.
Reviews of Hirshman’s 2015 book often praise the author’s recounting of the two careers that lead to O’Connor and Ginsberg landing at the Marble Palace. Shapiro’s play concerns itself with the two of them once they are there. That may 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 evening I saw “Sisters,” understudy Marcia Darcy was doing uncanny work as the “Notorious RBG.”)
“Women in power handle power in ways that should make us all want more women in power,” Shapiro told Arizona Jewish Life when his play was getting its premiere in Phoenix in 2019. Consider that a gavel drop.
“Sisters in Law.” Written by Jonathan Shapiro. Based on the book by Linda Hirshman. Directed by Amy Feinberg. Through Oct. 31 at the John Hand Theater, 7653 E. First Place. [email protected] or 303-802-5122. For the final installment of the webinar on Legal Reform on Oct. 20, go to tatteredcover.com.
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