The play's the thing 

Springs Ensemble Theater challenges audiences to discuss — and donate

click to enlarge Clockwise from the top: SET's Gabriel Espinoza-Lira, Emory John Collinson, Sara Shaver and Jenny Maloney. - CASEY BRADLEY GENT
  • Casey Bradley Gent
  • Clockwise from the top: SET's Gabriel Espinoza-Lira, Emory John Collinson, Sara Shaver and Jenny Maloney.

For Springs Ensemble Theatre, it's all about "challenge:" embracing works that push performers as well as stimulate conversations for its audience members.

"We do really challenging work very well," says SET Vice President Sarah S. Shaver. And the past six seasons of SET performances, including 2014's award-winning The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? and Desdemona performances, add plenty of clout to her claim.

So where does the Give! campaign come in for a successful troupe like SET? Well, plays are expensive, often breaking $1,200 in licensing costs alone. SET is an all-volunteer company, and seasons are funded entirely by philanthropy and ticket sales. With tickets usually below $20, a lot rides on the philanthropy.

"We really try to focus on keeping it affordable for people to commune with us and get their regular dose of theater," Shaver says.

That's why the Give! veterans are back for another round of fundraising, having raised $6,711 last year. This year, the theater company is aiming to hit $9,950 to fund its promising 2016 lineup.

SET's season begins with The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence. The Madeleine George-written play follows four characters in one, all named Watson. It follows the lives of Dr. John Watson, assistant to Sherlock Holmes; Thomas A. Watson, loyal assistant to Alexander Graham Bell; IBM's Watson, the computer built to answer questions on "Jeopardy!"; and modern-day "techno-dweeb" named Watson who just wants love. The play, which will run Jan. 21 through Feb. 7, jumps between its Watsons in a study of everyone's examinations and associates.

In March, look for The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Shaver describes their Easter offering as something especially for the lapsed or those questioning their faith, adding that "it's something that speaks to faith and irreverence and all those wonderful things."

May will find the company at the Zodiac Venue/Bar performing Clown Bar, an immersive and grimy yarn, decidedly within the noir aesthetic — with a twist.

Says Shaver, "I look at it like Who Framed Roger Rabbit... There's a detective, and his brother was killed, so he's got to go back to his roots, go back to the clown gang wars and try to find out who killed his brother."

During the second half of the year, SET takes on a classic, Titus Andronicus, which, surprisingly, promises to be its flashiest and most effects-friendly production.

"Something like Titus Andronicus, a Shakespeare play, we don't have to pay royalties for, which is exciting," says Shaver. "We can put our money towards fake blood, and heads and hands that are dismembered... the style, the flash." The tale of revenge is known as one of Shakespeare's grisliest plays, and in SET's intimate space, audiences can expect something intense and startling.

Through next October, the company will perform The Elephant Man, an adaptation of the life story of Joseph Carey Merrick, an Englishman of the 19th century known for his severe deformities. This play, which saw 916 performances during its original Broadway run, should raise questions — again, Shaver's stated objective — about a man "who elicits both revulsion and compassion at the same time," Shaver says.

SET's 2016 season will end with Opus, the tale of the Lazara Quartet's struggles to reform as an ensemble after firing one of its members. The show will end in mid-December with a special New Year's Eve performance.

All told, 2016 promises to be another solid year for SET, one full of laughter, tears and difficult-to-navigate emotional spaces.


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