Culture » Visual Arts

The Elephant Man Cometh Even as the cast goeth



Any theatrical experience is a collaborative act of the imagination between the cast and the audience, and in the case of a reading, the audience carries a greater imaginative responsibility than normal. The actors provide minimal interpretation, relying on vocalization, facial expression, and a minimal amount of stage movement. But primarily their task is to put the story before our mind's eye without doing anything to impede the view, gracefully fading to black once their lines are spoken. "Intentional" readings, in which a director's original production plan calls for scripts in hands, can be a vivid and powerful endeavor, a blending of one's own rich experience of reading with the added elements of outside interpreters and an audience to share the communal experience.

Upstart Performing Ensemble's production is more of an "accidental" reading, a crisis plan after two cast members left the production at the last minute. The biggest challenge in adapting the play for a reading is to convey the physicality of John Merrick, the title character, while managing to hold a script and turn the pages. Joe Forbeck is surprisingly effective in conveying Merrick's unique body image with an understated, but always present, hint of his deformity, his struggling and his suffering.

The Elephant Man turns out to be oddly well-suited to a reading. Merrick has the soul of an artist, and the play's most powerful moments come between him and Mrs. Kendal, an actress played with humor and sensitivity by Ashley Crockett. The cast is a dedicated band of lovers of stories, maintaining their faith in the power of language and the impact of characters in much the same way that Merrick and his adopted friends are committed to art and the exchange of ideas.

Two of the play's most evocative moments concern Merrick's interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, and his dissatisfaction with Romeo's selfish illusory love, his hasty suicide before even taking Juliet's pulse or calling for help. The scene sets up a grippingly real moment at Merrick's own death and the selfless, passionate reaction of an orderly at the hospital played with breakthrough emotion by Ben Rosenberg.

Upstart Performing Ensemble graces the Springs with the modest gift of this story, humbly allowing themselves to play second fiddle to the story at its most essential level.

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