Editor’s note: The Museum of Contemporary Art currently is exhibiting “David Bowie Is. ” The retrospective includes a look at the artist’s theatrical work, including his starring role in “”The Elephant Man” at the Chicago’s Blackstone Theater in 1980. This review, by late Sun-Times theater critic Glenna Syse, was published in the Chicago Sun-Times August 8, 1980.
By Glenna Syse
First let’s establish the facts. Philip Anglim starred in Bernard Pomerances’ “The Elephant Man” at the Blackstone Theater last season. He won every accolade in the book. David Bowie, rock star, opened in the same play Thursday night at the same theater.
Anglim, meet Bowie. Bowie, meet Anglim. Now you have both met your match.
No, I am not going to compare the two, and that decision is meant as the highest compliment. It will probably irritate the curious, those who live by the polls, the numbers, the contest, the checklist. Comparisions are often odious, although sometimes they are compulsory to maintain and bolster standards. But this time they are unnecessary.
I find such a situation rare and comforting, primarily because it reaffirms the wondrous depth and diversity of good theater. Take a script, the same script, do it over and over again. There are no right ways and wrong ways, there are only different ways and that, thank God, can often mean many good ways. Sure, Anglim and Bowie are apples and oranges. But they grow from the same healthy stem of skill and each has a bountiful harvest. And each has added a new dimension to this fascinating character who in his monstrously deformed body, probably knows the true essence of beauty better than the most normal of men.
“Bowie adds a new perception to Merrick, a sort of terrestrial, other-worldly beauty. The eyes burn dark holes in the balcony.”
It would be phoney to admit that I was not surprised. I would have bet book that Bowie wouldn’t have cut it. To make your theatrical debut in a drama of this complexity and difficulty is lion’s den stuff. If Bowie can do this, I quite soberly say he can do anything. If I should ever hear that he is going to take up blackjack, deal me a hand. I’ll shadow him at every table.
And it is also to the credit of the producers and director Jack Hofsiss that they had the insight to take the risk. It will, undoubtedly, bring a brand new audience to the theater and may they all end up being born-again theatergoers.
Bowie plays John Merrick, “quite beyond ugly.” He is a despised creature who has suffered excessive humiliation. A circus freak, meant to gape and gawk at for a price. His head was oversized, his skin an open sore, his mouth a blur, his hip deformed. A cauliflower, a radish of a man. But the portrayal uses no padding, no mask, no artifice. The illusion is conveyed only through stance and diction.
Bowie adds a new perception to Merrick, a sort of terrestrial, other-worldly beauty. The eyes burn dark holes in the balcony. They are both vulnerable and questing. The skin is fair and fragile somehow showing the unspoiled nature of the mind. And like his admiring friend Mrs. Kendal says “he is almost feminine, almost like me.”
The voice has proper struggle and catch but you miss not a word. And he is splendidly adept at timing the clever wit of the script. Merrick, after all, understands better than most the avarice and the guilt of man, the queasy qualities of mercy and charity. He also knows that those who gather round to save and pamper him have polished him like a mirror but that the shiny image only reflects them. His only mistake is to presume that he is what he is not — and that is normal.
This production is every so slightly broader than earlier ones, but its sharp lines delineate and illuminate the depth and compassion of the story in more striking and vivid tones. Ken Ruta as the logical and helpful doctor has even grown in a role that was excellent in the first place. Concetta Tomei lacks some of the delicacy of the actress who befriends him, but she knows how to take charge of a scene.
“The Elephant Man” has been well served. Differently, but superbly. It deserves your observance.
‘The Elephant Man’
Frederick Treves and Belgian policeman: Ken Ruta
Carr Gomm and conductor: Richard Neilson
Ross, Bishop Walsham, How and Snork: Thomas Toner
John Merrick: David Bowie
Pinhead manager, London policeman, Will and Lord John: Dennis Lipscomb
Princess Alexandra: Jeanette Landis
Mrs. Kendal, Pinhead: Concetta Tomei
Orderly: Thomas Apple
Cellist: David Heiss
A play by Bernard Pomerance presented by Richmond Crinkley, Elixabeth I. McCann and Nelie Nugent in the American National Theater and Academy production. Directed by Jack Hofsis, with setting by David Jenkins, cosotumes by Julie Weiss and lighting by Beverly Emmons. At the Blackstone Theater.