PHAMALY (The Physically Handicapped Actors and Musical Artists League) is currently enticing audiences with their production of THE ELEPHANT MAN, playing now through Feb 4th. THE ELEPHANT MAN chronicles the true story of Joseph (John) Carey Merrick, treated as a sideshow freak because of his hideously deformed body. Abandoned and helpless, Merrick is discovered by a young doctor who provides him with a home in a London hospital. While no longer a victim of beatings and abuse, Merrick becomes an object of curiosity, a curio, to exploit among the upper class.
For over twenty years PHAMALY’s mission statement has been to provide professional theatre opportunities and artistic development for performers with disabilities, and to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities in the performing arts community. But I have to be honest, although PHAMALY has received accolades on a national and local scale (2011 recipient of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce Small Nonprofit Business of the Year award), I have not taken the opportunity to see a show until now. After witnessing this outstanding production, I’m kicking myself for not doing so much earlier. I had no idea what I was missing!
As both an actor and the son of an epileptic mother, I appreciate the demands that these actors’ disabilities can put upon them. That is one reason I was so thoroughly impressed with their uncomplicated ease onstage. I can honestly say this performance was life changing for me, offering a broadened perspective that blasts stereotypes right out of the water. These actors not only overcome their disadvantages onstage, but claim their challenges as a celebration of individuality. Also, each actor’s disability is detailed in their playbill bios, with links to websites for more information. Considering the assumptions and stereotyped images that dominant society (i.e. able-bodied/able-minded) continues to promote within the narrow frame of what disabled people “lack” (rather than what they possess), detailing one’s disabled status publicly is a bold move – a necessary move – and another example of proud ownership of oneself. ALL of oneself.
Daniel Traylor in the lead role as John Merrick was most impressive, capturing both the anguish and the hope of the man he plays. Traylor’s real-life experiences with arthritis and congenital hip dysplasia allow him an embodied understanding of his character, which brings an authenticity and intensity to the role that an actor who has never had to endure this kind of intense pain would perhaps find difficult to imagine, let alone achieve. Keep in mind that long rehearsal and performance hours can be physically and mentally taxing for anyone; Traylor’s passion for performing is evident at the outset, and he offers an emotional performance that runs the gamut from abject misery to confident optimism. Mark Dissette as Merrick’s benefactor and doctor Frederick Treves was also wonderful. His compassion, tinged with initial pity, for Merrick is heartfelt and genuine. His frustration and anger at the cruelty Merrick suffers at the hands of upper-class London society is palpable. Lucy Roucis was funny and tender as Mrs. Kendal; she is a joy to watch onstage. Other standout performances were Edward W. Blackshere as the no-good swindling sideshow manager Ross, and Don Mauck as blind Bishop How also offers a superb performance. Artistic director StEve Wilson and co-director Bryce Alexander deserve a standing ovation for tapping into such wonderful talent and showcasing their acting chops in this classic story.
The set by scenic designer M. Curtis Grittner is especially utilitarian for this diverse crew. The ramps flowed evenly and offered a couple of surprises that enhanced the overall show. I especially enjoyed the old-school multimedia effects by designer El Armstrong. Linda Morken's costumes were lovely and appropriate for the historical setting. Linguistic coach Kathy Maes must be complimented for working with these actors on their time period-specific dialects, achieving amazing results that added multisensory atmosphere to the overall tone and pace of the play.
In short, mainstream productions can take a cue from PHAMALY’s inclusive theatrical approach. Showcasing disabled actors in both lead and supporting roles of conventional plays and musicals will only enhance the theater-going experience for all those who attend, as well as challenge society’s common definitions of “normal” and “able.” If you have not seen a production by the talented and very able cast and crew of PHAMALY, then I simply insist you attend. It will change the way you experience theater. PHAMALY's THE ELEPHANT MAN will be touching audiences at the Aurora Fox Theater through February 4th, with a special encore at the Arvada Center February 24-26. For tickets or information about this amazing company, contact the box office at 303-575-0005 or online at www.phamaly.org.