She is polite and soft-spoken. Almost nun-like. With her black boxy dress, orthopedic shoes and head scarf — plus a string of pearls, the only carefree nod to ornamentation — she moves with a determined, contemplative air. When she asks a visitor for a small donation for the museum she’s spent her life building, it is with a demure nod and a slight bow, as if the mere mention of money detracts from the greater glory of preserving history.
But make no mistake. Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf is not a pushover. There is steel within.
From our first meeting with the central character in the beautifully staged and acted production of “I Am My Own Wife” from StageWorks Fresno, it’s clear Charlotte is a survivor. In the hands of Terry Lewis, who gives the most riveting performance I’ve seen from him in numerous local theater outings, and director J. Daniel Herring, whose careful and deft touch is evident throughout this well crafted production, a perplexing and entrancing character comes to life in a rich, textured portrayal. The challenge for Lewis doesn’t stop with Charlotte, however. In this one-person show — which calls for a male actor to play a famous 20th Century transvestite — Lewis portrays all the characters, more than 40, in a tale that gently nudges us toward a deeper understanding not only of an interesting historical figure but also the nature of history itself.
The doctor warns the nurse before she enters the hospital room. You’ve never seen a patient this disfigured and horrific before, he tells her. Prepare yourself. Nonsense, she insists. She’s seen it all, including the worst diseases in Africa. There’s no way she will respond with anything but compassion.
The nurse strides confidently into the room, takes one look at John Merrick — the “Elephant Man” — and promptly flees.
One of the fascinating things about Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 Victorian-era-set play, which Fresno State is staging in a solid if slightly musty (and occasionally tedious) production through Saturday, is the way it identifies with that nurse. We’d all like to think we’re strong enough, both in sensibility and spirit, to look past the “surface” and see the inner beauty within a sturdy soul like Merrick. Or at least maintain our composure when meeting someone like him for the first time. But even if we prepared ourselves, we don’t really know how we’d respond to such a situation until we were in it.
Fresno State’s “The Elephant Man,” under the direction of J. Daniel Herring, opens Friday. And it might come as a surprise to learn that Dane Oliver, who plays the title character, doesn’t use any makeup or prosthetics in his portrayal. It turns out that’s a tradition for this show. I caught up with Herring to talk about the production, which continues through Dec. 15, for Friday’s 7 section. Here’s an extended version of that interview.
Question: Many people are familiar with the movie version of “The Elephant Man.” In what major ways does Bernard Pomerance’s play differ?
There are two distinct differences. One is that the majority of the play takes place in Whitechapel Hospital while there are many scenes in the film outside the walls of the hospital. Probably the most significant difference is that the actor portraying the Elephant Man performs the role of this grossly disfigured man using no makeup or prosthetics and of course in the film, the actor is quite “made-up”.
For those who aren’t familiar, what’s the basic storyline?
The Elephant Man” is based on the life of John Merrick, who lived in London during the latter part of the nineteenth century. A horribly deformed young man, victim of rare skin and bone diseases, he has become the star freak attraction in traveling side shows. Found abandoned and helpless, he is admitted to London’s prestigious Whitechapel Hospital. Under the care of celebrated young physician Frederick Treves, Merrick is introduced to London society and slowly evolves from an object of pity to an urbane and witty favorite of the aristocracy and literati only to be denied his ultimate dream, to become a man like any other.
It isn’t just that Lewis — a longtime Fresno theater performer whose clean-cut characterizations and strong tenor voice have endeared him over the years to local audiences, mostly in family-friendly fare — bares all of his outsides in this one-man show. (No euphemisms this time: We’re talking full-frontal nudity on stage.) For 70 minutes, he does the same thing with his insides as well. He gives a haunting, stirring, funny, subversive and emotionally potent performance.
This sweet, family-friendly holiday play has been tickling funny bones for a couple of decades by first playing up the appalling nature of the six Herdman siblings — in the opening moments we learn they’re the “worst kids in the world” — and then watching their transformation as they experience the Christmas story for the first time.
Director J. Daniel Herring doles out Christmas-feast-sized portions of sentiment in his nostalgic production. (And this is certainly the time of year that he can get away with it.) He pushes the time period firmly into the past, giving us a 1950s setting with a squeaky-clean “Father Knows Best” atmosphere. (Sarah Gallegos’ nice costumes help set the mood.) And by creating an additional character — a grown-up version of Beth Bradley, played with tenderness and aplomb by Ashley Taylor — to recount her memories of the pageant and serve as an ever-present onlooker, the nostalgia is confirmed. Just to seal the deal, Herring makes her character pregnant. Altogether now: Awww.
How well do you know your neighbors? There’s a little bit of the voyeur in all of us — and there always has been. Though it might stun the generation that can’t remember a pre-online world, people have spied, snooped, gossiped about and ruthlessly inventoried those who lived around them ever since the first cave-dweller condo association was formed.
With modern technology, however, some of the ways we keep tabs on our neighbors have changed — and gotten easier. In “T.I.C. Trenchcoat in Common,” which continues through Saturday at Fresno State, a young woman we know only as “Kid” chronicles the goings-on around her in the tight San Francisco quarters she shares with her neighbors by writing a tell-all blog and training surveillance cameras on them.
Director J. Daniel Herring and a hard-working (and not always clothed) cast of Fresno State students have a lot of fun with this production, and they get points for gutsiness. The staging is clever and thoughtful, the production design is full of spark, and the cast fully embraces playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s eccentric characters.
As for the play itself — it’s weird, wacky and often quite amusing. But it’s also disjointed and gimmicky, and I just don’t think it holds together all that well in terms of structure and tone.
Just like Mike says, outdoors is going to be a powerful draw. Enjoy spring while you can!
1. SHARE A MOMENT WITH THESE BOSOM BUDDIES
As part of my coverage of the Fresno Choral Artists’ “Return to Broadway” concert 4 p.m. Saturday at Hope Lutheran Church, I got to spend some time with the two delightful ladies pictured below. Barbara Volker, 68, will perform the song “Bosom Buddies” from “Mame” with her mother, Ruth Goble, 90. They make a charming pair. My account of our photo shoot with them is here.
“Eastern Standard,” which continues at Fresno State through Saturday, aptly captures a particular time, place and demographic. It’s the late ’80s in New York City, and we meet a group of (mostly) wealthy young professionals grappling with the issues of the times. Those issues include HIV/AIDS, rampant materialism, the gap between the rich and poor — and even the contemporary art scene. (You know you’ve entered a Manhattan-centric world when there’s a joke about Julian Schnabel.)
Richard Greenberg’s 1988 play is well written, and there are some solid performances. But the whole experience made me think about the question of relevance.
“Eastern Standard” just doesn’t seem like a very strong selection for a university theater department that last month staged a 1944 period piece written in 1981 (“A Soldier’s Play”), is following this one with an adaptation of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” continues with a 1743 comedy by a Venetian playwright titled “Servant of Two Masters” and will then finish up with the not-exactly-hot-off-the-presses “The Glass Menagerie.” If “Eastern Standard” is meant to put a contemporary twist on the season, then ouch.