SALT LAKE CITY — Mob mentality is a psychological phenomenon that has always been of great interest to me, probably because it both fascinates and terrifies me. Fantastic feats can be accomplished by a group of angry people, particularly if that anger is fueled by a bit of showmanship. In George Brant‘s acutely orphic Elephant’s Graveyard, that very idea is explored in a cleverly unusual way: through a series of monologues.
The script is a true ensemble piece, with all of the actors having a similar amount of stage time throughout its action. Never at any point do the actors actually speak to one another, giving the sense that all of their experiences with the events are singular and distinct. The story is a simple yet disturbing one: in September of 1916, an Asian elephant named Mary was part of a traveling circus. They arrived in a muddy Tennessee town called Erwin, leading a parade through the streets. A substitute elephant handler named Red Eldridge upset Mary, causing her to fling him from her back and onto the ground where she crushed his skull with her foot. The town became so incensed that they demanded Mary’s life, and, the following evening, Mary was hung by the neck by a railroad crane until dead.
So impactful is the script that nearly any actor could make it interesting, but there was skill at work among this ensemble. Among the performances of note was Laurel Myler as the ringmaster, her Gothic look and wry, world-weary tone an offset to the anguish and vitriol displayed by the rest of the cast. Her final monologue, however, was layered with a singe of bitterness, delivering meaning and metaphor in a grand yet wonderfully human way. I also enjoyed the portrayal of the train conductor by Hannah Orrock, whose character acted as the Oracle of the piece, her voice neutral, her attitude straightforward: people can always count on the railroad. One of her lines (which I will paraphrase), “so much gray, it couldn’t be black and white” was my favorite of the show.
Megan Chase as the militant marshal was downright terrifying. Many of the roles were written for men, but, to the credit of Anthem Theater Company, were played by women to a most interesting effect. The hot, vengeful drive of Chase’s marshal as she puts fire into the bellies of her fellow townspeople is void of compassion and mercy, two traits usually stereotypical of female characters. As it was, her triumphant delivery of her final monologue wherein she boasts of the power of America in accomplishing anything—even executing an elephant—was profoundly sinister. The most affecting moment of the play was accomplished by Jaquavious Harris as the hungry townsperson and the single cast member of color. His entire performance was plaintive, sweet, and genuine, and I was endeared to his character. In his final monologue, he laments that this was not the only lynching the town had seen: “Those colored boys must have looked all the same, because all anyone wanted to talk about was the elephant. Damn this thing…damn this thing.”
As the strange tale unfolds, there is a pervading sense of dread looming in such palpable heaviness that it seems a character all its own. Indeed, at times my stomach was in knots, responding in a wonderfully visceral way to every word. As I mentioned before, the script is a strong one, devilishly colorful and sizzling with syntax. There was a driving rhythm at work, helped along by a lone drummer in the back of the stage that played his forceful and tenacious tune through the action. A particular example of every element coming together was the scene wherein the death of Mr. Eldridge is described. A special red light grew in intensity as Orrock spun the details, accompanied by a frantic pace set by the drummer. In a direction choice that could have been hackneyed, the script and performance by Orrock coalesced in a decidedly effective moment.
Particular kudos must be paid to director Caitlin Laurie Bell, who staged the play with ladders, crates, and boxes, allowing the script and performances to shine without overwhelming them with blocking and at the same time giving levels for the actors to utilize. A play full of monologues is always in danger of becoming static, but Bell’s staging allowed for varied texture and visual interest. She has also guided her actors along at a nicely clipped pace that still manages to punch up color and emotion, meaning the play is a mere hour long.
It seems my lot this month to witness all the dark and demented themes theater has to offer, but I could not be more pleased about it. I enjoyed my time with this stunning work of theater and hope to see it again one day.