"We are all the same" is the moral of the story being told by The Emergent Theatre, beginning this weekend at the Cascia Hall Performing Arts Center (Helmerich Theater), 2520 S. Yorktown Ave. The company is comprised of New York City-based professional actors, coupled with a few locals in supporting roles. The play is The Elephant Man, by Bernard Pomerace, about Joseph Merrick, a man living with an obscene physical deformity in the 1800s.
It's believed that Merrick contracted the disease that left him deformed around the age of five. Though his condition is commonly associated with elephantitis, more recent research suggests he was actually ailed of Proteus Syndrome, a congenital disorder that causes skin overgrowth, atypical bone development and tumors, and possibly neurofibromatosis, which causes tumors to grow along nerves.
Merrick left home at a young age and, finding himself unemployable after a couple of stints in a workhouse, joined a sideshow circus in London where he was featured as a freak of nature.
There, he was treated well by the show's mangers and was able to save a large sum of money. He was paid, however, for his pride and was constantly the subject of abuse by those observing him for entertainment.
Sideshows were outlawed in the United Kingdom in 1886, and Merrick traveled to Belgium to find work, where he was robbed by the manager of the sideshow he joined there.
While working in London, though, he met a doctor, Frederick Treves, and upon returning to the city, took a residence at a hospital. There, his relationship with Treves and an actress, Mrs. Kendal, allowed him to thrive and enjoy a relatively happy life.
Merrick died at 27 as a result of suffocation during his sleep, assumed to be accidental. Because of his condition, Merrick had to sleep in an upright position, and it is speculated he tried to sleep lying down to replicate normal life, causing him to suffocate.
The beauty of Merrick's story, though, lies in the fact that, though he was treated horribly by nearly everyone who came in contact with him, he never reacted with rage or anger, but always with kindness and concern for his persecutors. So, the question is, who is the real monster?
Meredith Purgason, owner of Purgason Productions and the producer of the play as well as director of Cascia Hall's Performing Arts Center, and actor Justin Badger, who plays Dr. Treves, said The Emergent Theatre decided to put on The Elephant Man because it reflects the company's mission and offers a story that just about everyone can relate to, a story that insists that, though we all may come from different backgrounds, look differently and behave differently, inside, essentially, we are all the same. We are all human.
"I really cling to shows where people think they might not have anything in common with the main character but realize they do, with characters who go outside what is typical and find their own way to success," Badger said. "I love the idea that he (Merrick) has a different path outside what social constructs deem the typical path to success.
"It works on the idea of social tolerance and social acceptance. If the show sparked any thought in the minds of the audience, then we've done our job."
"We don't want to force the message down anyone's throat," Purgason said. "We want you to decide for yourself what the message is."
Both commented that the show's director, New Yorker and another co-founder of The Emergent Theatre Jesse Gustafson, tried to direct the show in a way so that his own opinions and ideas about what the moral of the story is weren't totally evident. He wanted to leave room for the audience to develop its own opinion of Merrick, his life, and the way he was treated by others.
And, the company is doing something a little bit unusual after each show.
The actors will return to the stage after the curtain falls to have a "talk back," a discussion with the audience about what it just saw and an opportunity for audience members to offer the company feedback and question the actors.
The founding members of The Emergent Theatre first met at the University of California Santa Barbara and said that, after college, they would each spend three or four years doing what they each needed to do in the world before meeting back in New York, which they did in 2005. They reconnected as actors and put together a company that would not be limited geographically, that included members in Tulsa, New York, California and elsewhere.
Purgason signed on as the company's producer and then took the job at Cascia Hall, an opportunity she was excited about, mostly because of the brand new theater, but also because of the opportunity to work with young people. She began thinking, though, about how she could bring the New York theatre experience to Tulsa and decided to enlist her friends in The Emergent Theatre to do just that.
Other cast members include Terry Small as Merrick, Jesse Barton and Mrs. Kendal, Robert Gray as Gomm and locals Brian Rattlingourd, David A. Lawrence, Hope Floyd, Mariah Harnish and Becca Hyvonen. The company members were adamant about including the Tulsa community in this show by casting local actors.
The Elephant Man opened Wednesday, July 18, and continues July 19 through 29. evening performances are at 8pm and matinees are at 2pm. Tickets are $15 to $28, with discounts for seniors students and groups, and a portion of ticket sales will benefit Domestic Violence Intervention Services/Call Rape. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.elephantmantheplay.com.
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