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click to enlarge 'The Elephant Man'

Elina Moon

'The Elephant Man'

Waiting for Buddy is a Beckettian experience, plus GOAT and Baggy Pants return with 'The Elephant Man' 

In last week's Live Active Cultures column, I referenced Waiting for Godot in my review of Slava's Snow Show at the Dr. Phillips Center. While I've seen Samuel Beckett's seminal serio-comedy several times on Broadway (both with Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin, and Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) and even directed the play, I'd never performed in it until last Thursday, when I starred in a real-life remake, retitled Waiting for Buddy.

This recycling-themed reimagining began weeks ago when my wife registered us for the city of Orlando's composting program, which distributes free composters to residents; the R2-D2-esque plastic blobs reside in the corner of the lawn and quietly convert table scraps and lawn clippings into organic fertilizer. Our address, we learned via a phone call, was selected as one of a handful to which Mayor Buddy Dyer would personally deliver.

After a frantic (and frankly overdue) day of yardwork, the appointed hour arrived ... and passed. Though further phone calls assured us arrival was imminent, we sat and waited like Didi and Gogo, only with coffee. As we were warned might happen, His Honor had been waylaid en route and wouldn't be attending after all – but unlike his Beckettian predecessor, he didn't even send a creepy child to tell us "tomorrow." Instead, the item arrived accompanied by city commissioner Patty Sheehan, who set up the composter and schooled us on its proper use with the assistance of city solid-waste manager Mike Carroll. Sheehan truly walks the walk where waste is concerned: Not only has she had her own composter for a while, but she feeds it chicken poop from the poultry she raises. Shame that cat litter isn't compatible, or I'd be all set. Instead you'll find me in my kitchen garbage separating plant matter from animal protein ... at least until I snap and turn vegan.

Luckily, my personal existential comedy concluded in plenty of time to attend that evening's press preview of Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man at Orlando Shakes' Santos Dantin Studio Theater, produced collaboratively by Greater Orlando Actors Theatre and Baggy Pants Theater. It tells the true-life tale of John Merrick, a devastatingly deformed but deeply intelligent man who went from sideshow freak to the toast of late-1880's English high society through the assistance/exploitation of ambitious physician Dr. Frederick Treves and unconventionally empathetic actress Madge Kendal.

As staged by director Stephen Halpin, Pomerance's Tony-winning script is as visually static as a radio play, with confusingly blocked climactic moments and under-choreographed scene changes further sapping the momentum. Production values are shoestring, and several crucial secondary roles are derailed by shouting and semi-intelligible accents that undermine important emotional scenes.

What anchors this production, and makes it worth watching to the end, is the impressively invested performance by Paul Castaneda, who embodies Merrick's tortured physiology through posture, facial expression and expressive breathing, rather than prosthetic makeup. Castaneda's Merrick, a man imprisoned inside his own body, is most alive during moments of connection with Treves (Jason Skinner) and Kendal (Marion C. Marsh). Merrick and Treves have precious few such instants, except when they are expounding on the happiness derived from following rules that are imposed "for our own good." His bond with Marsh's Kendal, though brief, is even more potent, especially in the tender scene where she deflowers his ocular virginity.

The role of Merrick required extensive physical and emotional preparation, as Castaneda told me after the preview. "Physically, I had to drop some weight. I had to; you're contorting yourself for two hours, if you have too much weight you're going to kill yourself. ... I'll need some chiropractic and masseuse work when this is over, but I knew that going in. The harder part really for me was the mental, the emotional, the soul work ... this is a role that has both inspired me and terrified me for decades." To go from someone who naturally "never stops moving" to one "trapped because of his condition," Castaneda had to "learn to resonate in a different energy completely in order to ... express in a smaller way."

Beyond The Elephant Man, Castaneda looks forward to presenting more shows at Shakes, with whom he is currently negotiating for a 2015-2016 season, and continuing GOAT's collaboration with Baggy Pants, which grew out of his regular "chips and salsa" meetings with Halpin. Both companies have gone through tough times as gypsies after losing their former homes, so it's encouraging to see them revitalized through cooperation. Paul himself is planning a "long break from the boards" after playing Merrick, but will be back in the director's chair soon, perhaps with a musical. I'll be waiting.

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