Stage version of ‘The Elephant Man’ carries powerful messages

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The life story of Joseph Merrick, known as the Elephant Man,  tells the sad tale of a man who struggled with severe physical deformities. His story has been told in books, immortalized in film and will be presented on stage at BYU this month.

“The Elephant Man” production will feature innovative use of masks, lighting and costumes to create a distorted depiction of London in the late 1800s, according to news.byu.edu.

David Morgan, head of the BFA Acting program at BYU, directs the show that was only going to be a character mask class project before the Department of Theatre and Media Arts decided to add it to their fall season.

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BYU presents "The Elephant Man," a classic tale that teaches it's what's on the inside that counts.

“I think it’s perfect for Halloween,” Morgan said. “I don’t think it’s like anything they’ve ever seen before in terms of your standard theater fare. This is much more experimental, it’s a very weird play. If you want to see it, it can be very controversial for the audience.”

The traditional presentation of Merrick questions society’s preconceived notions of beauty and ugliness. Usually the Elephant Man is physically distorted and horrific while the society around him is presented as physically normal, in the traditional sense. In this production however, through the use of masks the traditional portrayals of beauty and ugliness will be reversed.

Patrick Hayes, 23, from Rockledge, Fla., is a first-year graduate student studying theater and is the stage manager for the show. He helps stage the director’s unique perspective of the show with the inventive use of masks.

“Our director is approaching it with a different aspect,” Hayes said. “He is creating a very deconstructed world that is horribly grimy and dirty and all the characters except the Elephant Man are exaggerated.”

Student actors work with masks to find new ways of expressing themselves on stage. In the case of “The Elephant Man” the masks will be more than props and costuming — they will create characters and present the themes of the play.

“We never show our true identity to people,” Hayes said. “We are always hiding behind masks and therefore we can never truly be in the world because we are superficial.”

“The Elephant Man” runs Nov. 2-12 at 7:30 p.m., with matinee performances on Saturdays, in the Harris Fine Arts Center’s Margetts Theater. Tickets are available at the Fine Arts Ticket Office, 801-422-4322 and at byuarts.com/tickets.

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