Elephant Man set design mirrors Victorian London

John West, Roderick Justice and Denise Devlin star in “The Elephant Man.”

The Northern Kentucky University Corbett Theatre is a kaleidoscope of carnival colors these days. Giant prismatic posters depicting images of freak show spectacles clutter the stage, a prim Victorian piano is shoved into a corner and a massive black and white scene-scape of a London skyline looms in the background.

The imaginations and hard work of senior set design major Samantha Reno and guest theater faculty member Carly Adams are splashed all over the set they created for “The Elephant Man.”

Reno’s design and Adams’s paintings mark a return to grand-scale backdrop painting for NKU theater. The two backdrops, one depicting a black and white London and the other showcasing a brilliantly-colored freak show poster advertising the “Elephant Man,” each took more than a week to complete.

The backdrops will set the stage for the true-life story of John Merrick (Roderick Justice), a sensitive and intelligent freak show entertainer in 19th century Victorian England. Merrick suffered from Proteus syndrome, a condition that caused huge tumors on his head to grow to three feet in circumference.

Reno, who drew inspiration from Renaissance artists Hieronymus Bosch and Raphael, tried to match the set design to the mood of the Victorian setting and realities of Merrick’s life.

“London was a very two-faced place,” Reno said. “There was the rich upper class. It was the gilded age. But the other side was dirty, poor and ugly.”

Merrick interacts with both gilded London society and gritty London ghettos in the course of the show. Royalty and poor alike came to see the Elephant Man.

Director Ken Jones said the scenery reflects Merrick’s isolation from the normalcy of dismal London society.

“It (the set) forces an eerie feeling,” he said. “You have a splash of color in a gray world.”

Reno explained, “The freak show is in color because that is what’s real to John Merrick and everything else is faded and unknown.”

While Reno and Jones spent months planning a set design for the show, Adams was getting her first taste of life at NKU. A 2000 graduate of the School for Creative ‘ Performing Arts and a 2004 graduate of Wright State University, the guest faculty member has been teaching a scenic painting course this semester in addition to working on the show.

For Adams, this show was an enjoyable challenge and an opportunity to break away from more understated sets.

“This show we get to paint lots of bright colors and cool posters,” Adams said. “Some shows just don’t get that. Some shows are just marble and brick; this show is really interesting.”