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Tuesday, March 5

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Theater Wed Jun 06 2012

Red Tape Theater's Elephant's Graveyard (Is Not Really About an Elephant)

Pic 3 Red Tape Theatre's ELEPHANT'S GRAVEYARD by George Brant with Ensemble Cast (photo by James D Palmer).JPG
Red Tape Theatre's Elephant's Graveyard by George Brant with Ensemble Cast (photo by James D Palmer)

What the folks down home won't do for a little excitement -- anything to justify their existence, and everything to prove that they actually exist. Even the risk of being poisoned and suffocated with WWI mustard gas beats staying around a place that even Death forgets to visit sometimes. In a split second you can go from a benign spectator, watching the excitement of, and living vicariously through someone else's minds' eye, to the performer, the chorus, even the ringmaster of events. Just when you think you've got the whole town figured out, cataclysm strikes. The circus comes to town, and nothing or no one is ever the same.

The Spanks Circus 1916 World Tour includes the destination of Erwin, Tennessee, a town so misbegotten that "Erwin ain't even the real name of the place" -- so low were expectations of the town's success, its founder didn't bother to correct the misspelling on the official paperwork. The Young Girl has already figured out her hometown has no future, even before she embarks upon hers. Her Older Brother can't wait for the country to declare war on the Kaiser, so he can beat it out of one weary deathtrap and head straight to one that's "at least got explosions." There's a Woman Preacher, who came to Erwin especially to save souls, yet very few show up for Sunday service, perhaps already believing that just by living in Erwin, they're already damned to mud and boredom.

But the Spanks Circus is coming to Erwin, and it makes stops in towns and hamlets along the way, towns very much like Erwin, where the main occupation of the young townspeople if figuring a way to get out of town. Spanks offers a chance to see the world, or at least put the hometown in the distance, and as (eventual bad) luck would have it, in the town before their arrival in Erwin, Spanks picks up a young man known only as "Red," given the moniker because of his ruddy skin and flaming red hair -- the only interesting things about him, according to the elephants' Trainer (Carrie Drapac), a woman who finds herself pushed out of her job by Red's hiring, although Red has no experience with animals, let alone elephants. The Trainer warns the Tour Manager (Paul G. Miller) that she's the only one who can handle the elephants, particularly the Lead, a female that the Tour Manager paid eight grand for.

The Trainer's pleadings go unanswered and Red replaces her. It soon becomes obvious to The Trainer and then to the rest of the circus troupe that Red is not the right person for the job. The Lead bristles and brines under Red's helm, and protests her new conductor by pulling and swaying away. Red responds by taking to whipping The Lead, and continues to whip her, ignoring the cries and protests of The Trainer, until finally the elephant throws Red off her back and into the audience aligning Erwin's streets, following Red, and crushing his head with one foot.

The townspeople come to quick consensus: there's been a murder, and unless we make right for the victim, we'll be forever cursed as a town. The few voices of descent -- The Circus Troupe, The Preacher and the Hungry Townsperson -- don't hold much sway. The Tour Manager sees his "doller a'pound investment" fly out of the window, with nothing to be done without risking the human lives of the troupe, and of course not being paid to come back next year. So exciting is the planned execution of the murderous female elephant, WW1 doesn't seem so exciting anymore to the Older Brother looking to go AWOL from Erwin.

Once again the townspeople gather for a bigger event than the Spanks Circus could ever provide, and people from surrounding burgs join Erwinians for the celebration of justice, the staying of what would surely be a dead man's curse on the whole town -- the execution by hanging of an 8-ton pachyderm sorta by crane.

Except when accounting for the grand plan of humans, human error rarely gets its accounted due, and a simple oversight ensures the grizzly, lingering and very public death of a beast, reported by individual (and now remorseful) townspeople to have endured the injustice done to her in dignity as massive as her size. There will be no escaping The Curse, and future cursed generations will have little or no memory of what their forebears did to secure Erwin's future an exact reflection of its past.

There is no doubt that Elephants Graveyard (based on actual events) is an ambitious and continually interesting production, but I wondered if it misfires in using the history of lynching Black Americans as its inspiration and metaphor. The Hungry Townsperson, who is black, tells us in no uncertain terms that "colored folk didn't have a (vote)," and "it was just like when they lynched them colored boys" in post-execution analysis. As there's more than enough analogy, allegory, fiction and non-fiction (as well as a wonderfully harrowing photo exhibit a few years back) on the horrors of all-American lynching, there's really nothing that Elephants Graveyard could add to the history.

Watching Elephants Graveyard unfold, I found myself reminded of the Trayvon Martin controversy. Whether the play was written before of after the murder of Trayvon, with Red's killing by The Elephant, and the townspeople's screams for revenge combined with an almost insatiable appetite for spectacle and violence brought two questions I would have preferred investigated: are those of us considered "less than" by those of us considered "greater than" ever allowed self-defense, are we to live out human existence as beasts of burden, keeping mute, absorbing pain and indignation, accepting what "gets done to us"? Is justice guaranteed only at the hands of crowd-pleasing, ratings-race spectacle?

Yes, long questions, and above and beyond what the well-produced and well-performed Red Tape ensemble signed up for, but questions worth exploring and closer to modern times allegory if there's ever a restaging.

Elephant's Graveyard runs through June 16 at Red Tape Theater, 621 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets and more information can be found here.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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