Hippodrome stalwart Bryan Mercer gladly accepts the physically and emotionally demanding role of John Merrick, whose deformities require a total commitment from the actor.
For the next month, audiences at the Hippodrome Theatre will be absorbing every moment of Bryan Mercer’s gripping portrayal in the title role of The Elephant Man. At the end of each performance, there will be a collective sigh of relief when Mercer takes his bows with the rest of the talented cast.
That’s when everyone will realize that Mercer’s OK. Physically, at least.
“This is an incredibly exhausting role,” Mercer said. “On the very first page of the script it says that no one with back issues should attempt this role.”
For good reason. The role of the Elephant Man requires an actor to morph into a deformed human being, twisting his body and contorting his face to channel John Merrick, the real-life person the play revolves around.
Mercer, 56, calls the role an all-out “cliff dive.”
If that’s the case, the plunge begins tonight at 7 with the first of two discounted preview performances of The Elephant Man at the Hippodrome in downtown Gainesville. Opening Night is Friday at 8.
The production marks a milestone for the Hipp. The theater made the old U.S Federal building at 25 SE 2nd Place its new home 35 years ago. The very first performance was The Elephant Man.
“This is the show that opened this building,” said Lauren Warhol Caldwell, the Hippodrome’s artistic director who is directing The Elephant Man. “I was not around then and had never heard of the Hippodrome at that point, but I know it was a big deal to bring the theater downtown and still is.”
Louis Terrell was the actor who played John Merrick in that 1981 production. The only current member of the Hippodrome Acting Company to appear in The Elephant Man back then was Rusty Salling.
The Elephant Man was first performed in London in 1977 with David Schofield in the lead role. Philip Anglim played the original Merrick on Broadway. John Hurt, in full makeup, was in the 1980 movie version directed by David Lynch. Hollywood heartthrob Bradley Cooper revived the role last year on Broadway and then in London.
Written by Bernard Pomerance, The Elephant Man tells the story of John Merrick, who was born with a congenital disorder that gave him grotesque physical features and made him a societal outcast early in life. His life changes for the better when he is discovered in a sideshow by noted physician Frederick Treves, who learns humility and dignity from Merrick.
In the Hippodrome’s production, Mercer borrows from his predecessors but clearly makes the lead role his own.
“I’ve mentioned the role to family members and they go, ‘Oh, how long does it take you to get in makeup?’ And I’m like, ‘There is no makeup!’” Mercer said.
There’s no makeup and no prosthetics. The audience sees historical images of the real-life Merrick projected on a curtain and is invited to take a leap of faith. With Mercer, suspending disbelief is easy. By the time he utters his first line, the actor transforms into the misshapen Elephant Man, his joints locking into odd angles, his face drooping, one working eye observing the world askew.
“In my acting, some of the facial expressions do change or else I’m just deadpanning everything,” Mercer said. “It’s a very strange challenge to find a position and posture that works and then filter everything through the mouth and one eye. It’s an incredible thing.”
The result is haunting but believable. “Chameleon-like,” according to his director.
“He becomes one with it,” Caldwell said. “I don’t think people realize what a strain that puts on his body. It’s not easy to do. I think rehearsals are harder on Bryan than the performances will be because he rehearses six hours a day and he never, ever relaxes.”
Mercer said the key is to not force anything onstage but to be brutally honest.
“There’s no magic mumbo-jumbo or secret method that I’m putting on to get to him. No, no, no, no!” Mercer said. “Merrick has become such a cultural icon. His name and his image are deeply in our psyche as one of the most courageous examples of what it means to be a human being.
“I don’t profess to know at all any kind of sensibility of what it is to be disabled. That would be arrogance on my part. I hope I can only be honest enough to him in every moment that he has on stage to do credit to him. It’s a huge responsibility and it’s incredibly humbling.”
Although he calls Atlanta home, Mercer is an Ocala native and a proud member of the Hippodrome Acting Company. During the past year alone, he’s performed in The Post-Electric Mr. Burns, Peter and the Starcatcher and A Christmas Carol. He’s also been the musical director on numerous Hipp productions. He will perform those duties for the theater’s upcoming summer musical, The Toxic Avenger.
But first, Mercer must slip into his Elephant Man character eight times a week for the next month, perhaps longer if the show is held over.
I have to give credit to all the cast. It is a very, very complex story.
— Lauren Warhol Caldwell, director
“I had some good auditions, but Bryan definitely rose to the top,” Caldwell said. “He is that good, in my opinion. It’s very fun to watch him–and heartbreaking and tragic. I’m sort of like a proud sister watching him go through the process of putting this character together.”
She added, “I have to give credit to all the cast. It is a very, very complex story. There’s a lot in there. It needs to be really investigated.”
Mercer plays the title role, but he said the play really is more about Dr. Treves, whose character changes and evolves.
“Yes, Merrick’s the showy role and the pivot, but Treves’ journey is more delicate, more complicated and less understood,” Mercer said. “A New York critic actually called the role of Elephant Man ‘actor’s catnip,’ meaning it’s an incredible high to do it. … You have to just be fearless enough to jump in.”
The role of Treves is played by Hippodrome newcomer Joe Ditmyer.
“It’s Treves’ story,” Ditmyer said. “He was given an opportunity to take over London Hospital, which happened to be across the street from a sideshow. He discovered John Merrick.
According to Ditmyer, Treves’ initial plan was simply to study Merrick and determine what condition he had. However, his underlying intention was that exploiting Merrick could be a boon to his career.
“He’s gotten everything he’s wanted until this stage in his life, at 31 years old,” Ditmyer said. “Over time, I think he grows to really care about John Merrick as a friend and not a specimen.”
Treves introduces Merrick to an actress named Mrs. Kendal (Nichole Hamilton), who in turn introduces Merrick to London society in the 1880s. The Elephant Man also features Hippodrome veterans Mark Chambers, Niall McGinty, Logan Wolfe, Juliana Davis and newcomer Drew Michelle, all in multiple roles.
During most of the performance, however, Mercer’s Elephant Man steals the scene, even when he’s sitting still in the background.
“If you’re going to play John Merrick, you’ve got to lock into the mask or the shell that is him pretty dang soon,” Mercer said. “That informs how you say the lines. It informs how fast you get to places. How fast you walk across stage. Not to mention that it’s a British accent with the incredible deformity.”
During dramaturge, or research for the role, Mercer discovered that the real-life Merrick had difficulty speaking and was hard to understand.
“Oddly enough, the deformity makes him the clearest speaker on stage, only because he has to take so much time, and that is not accurate,” Mercer said. “If we were accurate, you would not understand him and he’d be slobbering and drooling.”
Through his research, Mercer discovered other fascinating information about Merrick.
“Come to find out, he was more in charge of his life than we imagined,” Mercer said. “He sold pantyhose and gloves door to door. Can you imagine someone who looked like this going door to door trying to make sales, making a living?
“He also had a brother and a sister that he lost. His sister was deformed. A baby brother died early. He did have a mother. She died when he was 10. He willingly put himself in a workhouse rolling cigars until he got so deformed he couldn’t even do that.”
This will be Mercer’s second go-around as the Elephant Man.
Thirty years ago, when he was 26, he played Merrick in a production at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
“[Caldwell] was a little concerned about me doing the role before, and I went, ‘Umm, I barely remember doing it. I was 26. What do you know of pain when you’re 26? What do you know of loneliness? You think you know. My technique has always been good, so I’m sure I techniqued the hell out of it. There are scenes I don’t remember doing at all. That was my drinking days. I did a run-through messed up. They said I was good, but you know …”
Now Mercer embraces this new opportunity to reprise the role for the Hippodrome.
I’ve been able to revisit a handful of roles,” he said. “First, you have the luxury of knowing you can do it. Second, it’s almost like being given a new lease on life. You can make up for it. When you get a second chance to do it, boy, you really bring it then.”
For further information about the actor, visit Bryan Mercer’s website.
For a schedule of performances and to order tickets, visit the The Hippodrome website.
The Elephant Man
at The Hippodrome Theatre
25 SE 2nd Place
Gainesville, FL 32601
Box office: 352.375.4477
Performances through May 1