SCOTT FORTIER doesn't need makeup to play the Elephant Man.
Early on in the Catalyst Theater Company production, the handsome actor sits in a neutral position in a chair facing the audience. Frederick Treves (Peter Finnegan), a distinguished 19th-century physician at London Hospital, presents the astonishing and true case of John Merrick to his esteemed colleagues.
Merrick suffered from neurofibromatosis, a network of skin and bone tumors resulting in the deformation of the head, spine and limbs. As the doctor catalogues his patient's afflictions, Fortier transforms each corresponding body part: Merrick's head was so "enormous and misshapen," he could not hold it upright. Fortier rolls and hangs his head to the side so that it looks like an inverted comma. The mass of bone that jutted from Merrick's brow and jaw compels the actor to squinch up one eye while his mouth droops like a slack rubber band. Next, the right arm thrusts out, stiffens and collapses into a chicken wing, representing Merrick's own atrophied and useless limb. The left arm, purportedly "delicately shaped with fine skin and a hand that a woman might have envied," remains well formed, as was Merrick's. By the end of the scene, the Elephant Man is fully present, created by the actor's conjuring and the audience's engaged imagination.
Bernard Pomerance's "The Elephant Man" traces the life of Merrick from carnival attraction to hospital patient to London celebrity. Many are familiar with David Lynch's movie in which John Hurt played the famous freak-show Victorian with full makeup and prostheses. However, the Introductory Note to Pomerance's original script includes a pointed directive: "Any attempt to reproduce his appearance -- if it were possible -- would seem to me not only counterproductive, but, the more remarkably successful, the more distracting from the play." Performers and viewers "readily accept [that directive]," Fortier says. "It is a wonderful, honest device and helps us get to the heart of the story."
Director Jim Petosa agrees. "What [Pomerance] was looking for was an exploration of the humanity of the character. He wanted the actor playing the part to totally use his own body and voice to create an abstract view of what John Merrick is all about. What's intriguing then is how afflicted do you invite the actor to become? I have seen productions of the play that go from very slight minor suggestions of the character's problems to closer to what we did -- a real active and aggressive deforming physicality."
Aggressive is right. Fortier twists his body to corkscrew extremes. His contorted face, meanwhile, looks like one of Francis Bacon's more lurid portraits.
While the play explores Merrick's essence rather than his appearance, his physical disabilities dictated a large part of his experience. The most painful result was isolation, brought on by what one character calls the "lacerating expressions" of people who saw and reviled him. Merrick's sense of disconnection from others is vividly presented by Fortier when his character makes the acquaintance of a well-known actress, Mrs. Kendall. At the end of their meeting, she extends her hand to Merrick. Thunderstruck, he does not accept it. "He doesn't feel worthy to touch her," Petosa says. "He is so constantly attuned to people's revulsion of him that he thinks touching her would be a terrible thing." At the doctor's prompting, Merrick at last steps forward and with his one good hand, grasps that of the beautiful actress. "Treves says at the end of that scene that he [Merrick] has never even touched a woman before -- and he is 21 years old -- it just breaks my heart every night," says Fortier.
Countering his profound isolation is Merrick's desire to communicate with others. Though his limitations affected his ability to talk, he carefully honed his speech, anxious to be understood. Fortier speaks slowly, like a record played at the wrong speed, articulating each word deliberately. His deep voice often trails off into a higher register, making it oddly musical. Fortier credits Petosa with helping him understand Merrick. "The main thing with the character was his need to be understood and his need to communicate and connect with other people -- no one wants to be not heard, unable to express themselves.
"Jim wanted a deep, resonate voice," Fortier continues. "I didn't think I was capable of it, but he kept pushing, so we ended up with what we did. We started with that deep bass, hitting the beginnings and endings of words, making every consonant and every syllable important."
The physical demands of portraying Merrick are akin to an athletic event, and Fortier prepares accordingly. "I try to go to the gym before rehearsals, and my wife helps me with yoga and stretches," he says. After seeing Fortier's impressive performance, I'd also recommend he have a massage and a cup of tea: He deserves it.