BY TARA McCARTHY

A group of actors gather at the Wood Street Centre, pulling costumes off a large rack and holding them up to their chins, evaluating whether it works for their character. Before long, the stage in the adjacent gymnasium will house Moving Parts Theatre’s production of the 1979 play, The Elephant Man.

Resurrecting props, staging and wardrobe from past productions already has the cast and crew well on their way to setting the scenes. Plus, director Anton Solomon says he’s keeping this production fairly simple, in order to convey its deeper message.

“The play itself is asking questions about what it means to be human, what it means to be civilized, what it means to be a compassionate member of society. And the society itself is under attack in this play,” he says.

“I don’t want it to be a perfect world. I want it to be one that is clearly linear in a world that needs more flexible interpretation.”

Elephant Man reveals the true story of Joseph Merrick, a heavily disfigured Englishman who was shunned by the 19th century society for being different.

Winluck Wong takes on the role of Merrick. And while Wong is familiar to the stage, he says this is unlike any character he’s ever had to tackle.

“I’ve never actually been so physically challenged in a play before. What’s hardest about doing this character is not getting the contortions right, but to maintain it and keep it consistent throughout the play,” Wong explains.

“I’ve always been able to find some familiarity with the way a character works that I can immediately latch onto. But this character is completely different. There’s a lot of cross over from the theatre life into my real life to make it natural looking, whereas I never had to do that in my other roles.”

Wong admits he’s even taken to limping around the house and practising specific breathing techniques that emulate Merrick’s struggle to function with his deformities.

On stage, the character’s disfigurement will not be broadcast with extensive make-up. Solomon says they’re staying true to what the playwright intended – allowing the words to deliver the tale, rather than the costumes.

“The script basically says the play is one about finding humanity. It’s not about recognizing deformity,” he says.

“It takes the thought out of the production and puts it into how these people are reacting to each other – what is fair, what is good, what is bad … how do people relate. You can’t focus on the disability because it’s not displayed.”

Wong says he’s been tempted to examine how other actors portrayed Merrick, such as John Hurt’s Academy Award-nominated performance in the 1980 film version.

“But I never got around to doing that because I was afraid that it would influence me and I don’t want this to be an imitation of what was done before,” Wong says.

“I just want to see if I can put my own spin on it.”

Relative newcomer Ely Boivin takes on his first major acting role as Dr. Frederick Treves. He says his character also presents a set of challenges.

Boivin describes the surgeon as a stiff, intelligent man who is horribly successful, yet becomes engulfed by his own torn emotions when treating Merrick.

“In the play, he just begins his descent into a less than happy place,” he explains.

“It’s a place where if you’ve ever been in the position that he’s in, you find yourself emotionally bound. It’s a very emotionally taxing role.”

But the emotion is what Solomon and the cast say they want the audience to pick up on and take away with them. It tests the viewer’s own choices about how they treat others based on what society sets as standards.

“What I’m hoping is that we’ll be able to take the audience on the emotional roller coaster that Treves goes on,” Boivin says.

“And I think if we strike the chord right, the audience will sometimes be elated, and sometimes they’ll be basically close to tears.”

The Elephant Man runs Nov. 12 to 15 and 18 to 22 at the Wood Street Centre. Tickets are $15 and available at Well-Read Books.

PHOTOS: RICK MASSIE massierick@hotmail.com