MENOMONIE — The UW-Stout University Theatre’s latest production, “The Elephant Man,” is about “the other,” according to director Paul Calenberg.
“It’s about the other and how the morality of the situation is always seen through the eyes of the privileged,” Calenberg said.
University Theatre is staging “The Elephant Man” at Harvey Hall Theatre. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and Friday, Nov. 15, and Saturday, Nov. 16.
“The Elephant Man” is a Tony Award-winning play based on the real-life experiences — particularly the last six years — of the life of John Merrick, who lived from 1862 to 1890 in London during the Victorian era. He suffered from a disease that causes extreme disfigurement of his face and body. Abandoned and left to fend for himself, he suffered great humiliation and suffering but retained his sense of compassion and justice.
“He’s everybody’s dog, mastered and trained,” Calenberg said of Merrick. “I am hoping people will be able to take a sense of humanity and what it means to be human from this play. Merrick is able to transcend that condemnation and brutality toward the other, and he does it with humility.”
The play has so many levels to offer to a university and the community, Calenberg noted. It addresses science vs. theology, Darwinism vs. creationism, poor vs. wealth and philosophy.
“It’s an economic play,” Calenberg said. “It’s a history play. It can be relevant for every student or professor on a college campus. It can open discussions pertinent to college life and our moral education. Merrick has a moral sense, a moral center and a moral need. We are all other to someone else.”
Merrick is performed by Nick Franco, a sophomore majoring in video production from St. Paul. The role is a challenge, Franco noted.
“The physical challenge is taking the posture, which is uncomfortable to hold,” Franco said. “The right hip is out; the right shoulder is brought up to the ear.”
He also has to create a voice that pauses and stutters but can be heard by the audience, Franco said. “I hope the audience understands that no matter how someone looks they can be a poet at heart,” he added.
Calenberg said Franco has a mix of charisma and a soothing, resonant voice that fit Merrick. “He has a keen intellectual understanding of what’s going on in the play,” Calenberg added.
After Merrick is exhibited in a “freak” sideshow and abandoned, he is rescued by a young Dr. Frederick Treves.
Derek Johnson, a junior computer science major from Riverside, Ill., portrays Treves. Treves means well and wants to help Merrick but may be using Merrick to further his career and stature. “You can mean well and do bad,” Johnson said of Treves. “He thinks he knows best. You need to understand the people you’re talking to and understand what they are comfortable with and want out of life.”
Harvey Hall Theatre, in UW-Stout’s Harvey Hall, is in the League of Historic American Theatres.
Student cast members and their majors are:
“The Elephant Man” has very simplistic staging, which is designed to allow the audience to focus on the play’s words, Calenberg said.
A cello will be played during the performances on stage by Dr. Erin Hall-Rhoades, family physician and medical director at UW-Stout Student Health Services.
“The music sets the tone,” Calenberg said. “The cello is one of the most soulful instruments.”
Assistant professor Jennifer Sansfacon is the designer and technical director for University Theatre.
UW-Stout offers a minor in performing arts. In addition to theater, the university has a band and choir as part of performing arts offerings.