In 1916, a small town in Tennessee lynched a five-ton circus elephant because she killed an abusive new trainer. The shocking incident is the basis for George Brant's 2008 play "Elephant's Graveyard," being performed at Modesto Junior College's Little Theatre.
For obvious reasons, the production can't re-enact the incident or show the elephant, so the story is told through the memories of the witnesses. Performers speak directly to the audience, recounting what they saw and how they felt.
The show is sad and deeply disturbing in its account of a community's desire for spectacle and revenge. It's hard to hear the long, graphic descriptions of Mary the elephant's injuries and how she died.
But the production is not as moving as it could be because of the way it is written. There is a lack of immediacy because we hear about the incident after the fact rather than seeing it as it occurs.
Still, the play is worth seeing because of the impeccable staging and attention to detail. It's obvious that director Lynette Borrelli-Glidewell, a passionate animal rights advocate, poured her heart into the production. She and set designer Ethan Kachel have created a circus atmosphere with colorful lights strung across the ceiling, a red and white striped big top tent and live folk music performed wonderfully by Franklin Dillon and Matthew Reich to the side of the main stage.
Phillip Azevedo is crass as the ringmaster who cares only about how he can make money. He has no feeling for his elephants and views them solely as investments. Joshua Palafox is kindhearted as the main elephant trainer, who considers the animals his friends. We never get a good look at Phillip Hauser, who plays the trainer the elephant kills, because his back is always to the audience.
The rest of the circus performers are uniformly saddened by Mary's death, including the Ballet Girl (spunky Taylor Ashleigh Williams), the Strongman (brash Joshua Cruz) and the Clown (frank-talking Delwana McKinney). Even the practical-minded Tour Manager (cigarette-smoking Eric Von Kauffman) sees Mary as an innocent creature.
For the most part, the townspeople are portrayed as dimwits looking for escape from their dreary lives. The townspeople portrayed by Paige Jenkins, Justin Chapman, Kendra Griffith and Shane Meyers are looking for excitement. Only Robert Corley as the thoughtful Hungry Townsperson and Joseph Swann as the Preacher are sensitive to the cruelty in the circus. Marc Pratt observes the action from an objective distance as the Railroad Engineer.
Borrelli-Glidewell said she decided to stage the play because she hopes to convince audience members to boycott circuses with animal performers. In the program, she provides details about recent incidents of abuse of circus animals and lists animal rights Web sites.
"Elephant's Graveyard" is not intended to entertain, but to make audiences think more deeply about the relationship between animals and circuses and the costs of spectacle.
Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan Renner can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2313.
MJC's 'Elephant's Graveyard'
WHERE: Modesto Junior College's Little Theatre, 435 College Ave.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Dec. 9
RUNNING TIME: 2 hours, including an intermission
TICKETS: $8-$10; not appropriate for young children
INFORMATION: (209) 575-6776 or www.mjc.tix.com
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