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SET's The Elephant Man shines with simplicity 

Elephant in the room

click to enlarge This show should only hurt a little bit. - EMORY JOHN COLLINSON
  • Emory John Collinson
  • This show should only hurt a little bit.

Whenever a theater sets out tissues at the end of the rows, you know it's going to be a rough one, and the emotionally charged story of The Elephant Man warrants the precaution.

In 1866 London, John Merrick (Micah Speirs) suffers from a condition that gives him rough skin growths and inoperable limbs, and faces exploitation as a sideshow attraction before Dr. Frederick Treves (Jude Bishop) takes him in. At the London Hospital, Merrick attempts to live the remainder of his short life as happily as he can, while in many ways still being used for monetary or emotional gain.

Ouch, right? But the story, an easy classic from 1977 playwright Bernard Pomerance, isn't what makes Springs Ensemble Theatre's version so effective; it's all in the simplicity. Rather than going all-out on stage design (which would've been difficult in SET's small space), they keep it subtle, sometimes only a single piece of furniture indicating setting. The effect proves striking, especially during the most emotional moments of the play.

Though such a simple set has its challenges when it comes to orienting the audience, it also serves the purpose of keeping attention focused on the actors. The ensemble bears the pressure well, especially the main three.

From the beginning, Speirs contorts himself to give the impression of deformity, exaggerating his crooked arm and limp as Merrick's condition worsens. Physically, it's a thoughtful performance, and despite affecting his speech and protruding his jaw he delivers his lines with as much emotion as the role deserves.

Bishop's performance lands subtler, playing the part of the concerned and calm doctor so steadily that his eventual emotional breakdown hurts that much more. And though everyone attempts British accents with varying degrees of success, his is the most consistent. During a scene in which Dr. Treves gives a lecture, it feels like you're listening to a particularly soothing audiobook.

E. Amber Singleton, who portrays Mrs. Kendal, shines as the show's standout success. Her overly theatrical introduction feels appropriate for the character: an actress hired to befriend Merrick. But Singleton slowly and naturally exposes Kendal's vulnerability through expert body language.

A solid supporting cast bears its own burden, pulling double duty with two or more roles each. Danine Schell and Taylor Geiman especially make it look easy, and the audience has no trouble telling when Geiman in particular is in "Bishop How" mode or "Ross the swindler" mode.

Along those lines, here's some advice: Pay attention to the costumes. According to designer Sarah Shaver, SET only spent $280 on them. Not only are they period-accurate, but some intentional symbolism went into the colors, specifically Mrs. Kendal's various gowns.

Add in fitting live ambient music provided by time-traveling, alt-folk duo The Rogue Spirits, and you've got a successful staging of a very difficult story.

And as this takes place during a period of British colonization, know going in that the script includes some racist language and mentions of colonialism. Also, be aware of ableist language when people discuss Merrick's condition.

Despite restrictions, spacial and financial, SET puts on a powerful production that's worth the watch — and maybe a tissue or two.

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