Elephant's Graveyard

There are some memories from childhood that are crisp, clearly defined, as certain to have actually happened as the sun having risen this morning.  There are other memories that are foggy, elusive, with a glimmer of uncertainty, like possibly having made an appearance in a dream rather than in reality.  My memory of the circus coming to Kamsack is of the second variety, mystical, whimsical, a flight of fancy.

Interspersed in the vignette is a railroad, a tent, clowns, crowds and the requisite elephant. They said she was a retired movie actress, her last picture having been Smokey and the Bandit II (1980) with Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, and Jackie Gleason. Apart from doing her bit in the circus act - which I don't remember - "Charlotte" was giving rides to children - which I do remember...sort of.  I think it happened, but I guess it also could have been in a dream that just stuck around these past 30 years.

Sensations of riding "Charlotte", of a musty circus tent, and of the trains rolling through town came pouring back during last night's incredible performance of Elephant's Graveyard by Cheepiyak Theatre Company at Westwood Community High School.  Directed by Terri Mort, the recent play (2008) by George Brant chronicles a real-life circus story that occurred down in Tennessee in September of 1916.  A recently hired hand, Red Eldridge, had taken "Mary" down to a nearby pond to splash about and have a drink in Kingsport.  While the chain of events is different, depending on which newspaper you read, the end result was the same.  Red Eldridge was trampled to death.

Most stories suggest that "Mary" almost immediately calmed down and continued her regular routine, despite onlookers chanting "Kill the elephant!"  As word of the tragedy spread, towns further down the line sent word that they would cancel their bookings if the animal wasn't dealt with, permanently. The owner of the circus, Charlie Sparks, realizing that his investment of $8,000 on the elephant was quickly losing its value and in fact, becoming a liability, agreed to let the townsfolk take matters into their own hands. They ended up hanging the unsuspecting "Mary" from a rail-mounted industrial crane.

In many ways, this seems like a strange subject for a play, but Brant's treatment is brilliant, and the cast of this Westwood production proved to be up to the task of elevating the script into a compelling theatre experience.

I can't remember the last time I was in Westwood venue, but I was quickly reminded of its intimacy and great acoustics.  We were sitting in the back row, my entire family on a rare night out together, and we heard every word, despite the fact that I'm pretty much deaf in my left ear (at least for the next couple of days - I have an appointment next week to hopefully fix that).

Making exquisite use of props and a simple set that consisted of a single solitary circus banner hanging upstage left, Elephant's Graveyard immediately comes alive with a cast of 15 and musical support from a guitarist/vocalist (Ruan Bouwer) and drummer (Reeid Whelton).

"I loved the part when they froze," said Ben, as we piled into our car for the return trip downtown.

I was entranced by the scene when they used the combination of their bodies and the rhythm of the drums to create the movement of the train.  As they sat in various positions on the faux wooden boxes, bodies jerking back and forth with the thrust of the locomotive, the image of a train superimposed itself from my mind and on to the stage.

There were a number of standouts for me, though every single performer did a great job.  I was impressed by Zoe Crandall as the Tour Manager, confident, expressive, in control.  Eileen VanHeerde as the sultry dancing girl was lithely convincing and captivating.  Emma Carter and Eryn Pinksen, playing the young boy and girl, were equally amazing, owning the stage and inhabiting the world of the play from beginning to end.  I loved the clowns!  Played by Maggie Chafe, Nina Johnson and Tom Nunez, they added necessary colour, comic relief and enormous pathos to the piece.  Zak Honeybourne did a brilliant job making "Mary" real, bringing her on and off the stage with complete commitment, holding on to her imaginary trunk. And Matthew Toole as the Ringmaster, channeled the magic of the circus coming to town with his voice and physicality - wonderful!

In a small way, I felt like a professional baseball or hockey scout, seeing the new generation of talent that will one day have the big roles at Keyano Theatre, or eventually at the Citadel, or even Stratford.  There was a lot of talent on that stage last night, not to mention complete commitment and energy.

Director Terri Mort has many reasons to be proud.  Elephant's Graveyard is a beautiful piece of theatre, a dramatic and moving thrill ride involving a town, a railroad, an elephant and a man with red hair.  Its heart-crushing conclusion and inspiring performances will stick with you long after you leave the theatre and return to your homes.  The final performance is tonight at 8 pm.  You'll be missing something special if you don't make it.


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