Saturday, September 5, 2009

Don't miss the funeral at Elephant's Graveyard

SPOILER ALERT: This review tells how the play comes out. If you'd rather be surprised, just know that it's really good. And go. Then come back and read this.

They hung a five-ton elephant on the basement stage at Balagan Theatre last night. Though Mary, the central character in Elephant's Graveyard, never appears on stage, you feel her presence throughout.

George Brant's play is a fascinating tale based on the true story of the day in 1916 that the town of Erwin, Tennessee executed a 10,000-pound pachyderm, hanging her from a rail yard crane. Balagan's new production of the show, directed by Jason Harber, packs an emotional wallop.

The story is simple. Mary the elephant is the star of the Sparks Circus, until one day, upon being mistreated by a rookie handler who had just joined the greatest show on Earth, throws said handler to the ground and stomps on his head, killing him. The townspeople demand justice and the ringmaster, fearing the red ink that could result from folks staying away from a dangerous circus, is willing to cut his losses and give it to them, over the protests of Mary's trainer and most of the other circus workers.

The show had the potential to be awfully boring. There's no action as such; the characters are mostly relaying the stories of what they did and saw. But Brant's writing is crisp, and Harber, making his Seattle directing debut, decided to have all 13 cast members remain on stage throughout the play's 75 minutes. It worked--everyone got to agonize through the events and the decisions together with us in the audience.

Harber also assembled a top-notch cast and gets wonderful performances out of all of them. I almost hate to single any of them out. However Chris "Sloop" Bell as the clown was a living, breathing answer to the question of why so many people are creeped out by clowns. He is the most enraged at the execution of Mary and winds up tasked with digging her grave. The tears flowing down his face at the closing curtain, taking much of his clown makeup with them, were amazing. Also props to Ray Tagavilla, who showed tremendous emotional range as Mary's trainer, a long-time partnership. It was gut-wrenching to watch him, teary eyed, tell of how he helped with the hanging. (Tagavilla was also marvelous in Balagan's Picasso at the Lapin Agile last spring, and is featured as a Spotlight Award winner in the currrent issue of Seattle magazine.) Michael D. Blum was grand as Sparks the ringmaster. The role demonstrated great range for Blum, who was hilarious in The Comedy of Errors at Greenstage this summer. And Banton Foster took on the role of the sheriff of Erwin with great zeal.

While there are a few laugh lines in the show, it's not really funny. It's an emotional punch in the gut that ended with few dry eyes in the sold-out house. Elephant's Graveyard is an amazing tale examining questions of justice, commerce, spectacle, race, gender, and revenge. Balagan's production is not to be missed. Tickets here; Balagan season tickets also are still available, and a steal at $110 for the nine remaining shows in the season.

Disclaimer: Weisenheimer is president of the board at Balagan, but it doesn't mean I'm biased.

For background on the story, this page on the Tennessee GenWeb site has a pretty good synopsis, as well as links to other Web resources.


Sweetie the Official Scorer said...

I agree, amazing cast, great direction. Gut- and heart-wrenching story. And strangely relevant, almost 100 years later. I loved the way live music was worked throughout the show. All of the music was performed by actors, in character, and seamlessly, beautifully done. Lovely, haunting guitar, banjo, singing, and, yes, train whistle. I really can't think of anything to quibble with. Bring kleenex.

Savvy said...

I enjoyed Ray's last performance with Balagan so much and your review makes me really want to go see this.

Congrats to Balagan for a great season opener and for perservering as a new theater company in Seattle. I'm so tired of hearing "in this economy." Just go make great art and people will join you.