Monday, May 21, 2012

SMALL TOWN, BIG ELEPHANT - 'Elephant's Graveyard' at Red Tape Theatre

(Photo by James D Palmer)

Perhaps half an hour into "Elephant's Graveyard", the forebodingly titled play by George Brant, which opened at Red Tape Theatre this past Monday, I noticed a fortuitous design quirk. On the floor of Red Tape's undisguised gymnasium at St. Peter's Episcopal Church, faintly visible, are three faded circles of what was once a basketball court. I quite like that Red Tape has allowed them to remain. Whether they are there on purpose or the theatre just cant afford the paint to cover them up, those circles pay tribute to the building's past and contribute a richness to its present offerings as a company. Red Tapes Elephants Graveyard, an absorbing though flawed play, is very much about a cultural acknowledgement of the past, however messy and ferocious that past may be. The play also, with an involuntary wink to those basketball court circles, takes place in a three-ring circus.

The 1916 event in which Mary, a Sparks Circus elephant, mistakenly killed a new animal handler on a parade route in full view of the crowd and consequently was condemned to die by hanging in small town Tennessee, is depicted gently by Brant and interpreted with stylized, somber fancy by Red Tape Artistic Director James D Palmer. Brant's maudlin circus drama is told though a series of disjointed, direct address recollections. All of the characters onstage offer their own perspectives of these happenings through monologues that are interrupted and fed by the other characters' thoughts and feelings. At the play's most frantic, this device makes for vigorous and engaging storytelling; however the play's first half-hour, going on about the wonders of Sparks Circus with empty grins and too much nostalgia, becomes repetitive and overlong.

Although the scattered first-person narratives all sound somewhat similar, the thirteen-person ensemble of circus freaks and townspeople succeed tremendously in differentiating themselves from one another. The actors togetherness is markedly fantastic as they sentence Mary to death bravely encapsulating all of humanitys prejudices and fears into this one small piece of forgotten history. Of the townspeople, only one, the Preacher, speaks out in defense of Mary. The Preacher, in a crafty casting choice, is played by a woman, Meghan Reardon. Interestingly, the character, adorned in a tie with Reardons hair pulled back, is still very much a man. Truth be told, Reardons empathy and inherent femininity makes you weigh what the Preacher says more conscientiously than had the character been played by a man, as written.
Two roles in Elephants Graveyard are of particular interest The Trainer, played with colorful humor and heartfelt anguish by Carrie Drapac, and Charlie Sparks, a dexterous Sean Thomas. The opening of the play and the subsequent transitions see Sparks, the now-retired owner of the circus, barely mobile, being cared for by a Nurse, also played by Drapac. Sparks suffers, not only from the usual ailments associated with aging, but from his agonizing guilt over what he allowed to happen to Mary and how he further capitalized on it.

As the elderly Sparks sits, heavily medicated in his comfy chair, the embodiment of his fears a limping, hooded creature with spikes covering its body nightmarishly haunts him. Myah Shein has choreographed this movement with griminess, peeling back at the texts too polished exterior. Similarly, Thomas portrays, with impressive transformation, Mary the elephant both as she marches triumphantly and as she is hanged in trembling terror. Personifying Mary adds another layer of disgust to this real-life horror story.    

The play is accompanied by a score of dark, plucky country music, sounding like Bluegrass but evoking the southern rebelliousness of Rockabilly, composed by Jonathan Gullien and performed by The New Switcheroo. The songs are neatly multifaceted, with the lyrics doing double duty as euphoric celebration and vengeful crowd damnation. The exciting melodies pair elegantly with the choreographed transitions, and lend the play a quickening pulse. The New Switcheroo is performing some of the best music on a Chicago theatre stage right now, in a musical or a straight play, and this heated, unnerving production would not be quite the same without it.

Emily Guthrie's wooden set continues to push the malleability of Red Tape's space with elevated seating in an alley configuration. Together with Kyle Lands lighting design of extreme warms and extreme cools, the play visually bounces from emotional high to emotional high. Bringing to mind the undefeatable modern court of public opinion, the audience is positioned high above the actors, facing each other on two sides the play envisioned as a stage of witnesses appealing to we the jury. Ascending the tall stairs to find a seat in these makeshift jury boxes is a stark initial reminder of our constantly shifting positions, the judge to the judged, and, more importantly, the terrible consquences of our personal hypocrisies.     

Red Tape Theatres production of Elephants Graveyard by George Brant runs at St. Peters Episcopal Church through June 16.