On Friday, Feb. 12, the St. Olaf Theater Department’s newest show, Elephant’s Graveyard, premiered in Kelsey Theater. It was the first of a two-weekend run that continues Thursday, Feb. 18.
Elephant’s Graveyard is the result of the Theater Department’s annual interim course, in which students rehearse and prepare a play over January and perform it at the beginning of the spring semester. It was directed by Artist in Residence Dona Werner Freeman.
The play tells the true story of events that occured in September of 1916 in Erwin, Tenn. that culminated in the execution of a five-ton elephant via hanging. A second-rate circus, Sparks World Famous Shows, gains notoreity after acquiring Mary, an elephant that a larger circus was discretely selling for undisclosed reasons. The circus then hops on the rails to Erwin, a podunk town that has never seen a spectacle quite like Sparks. Townies gather on Main Street to watch the elephant parade leading the circus troupe to the big top.
Disaster hits when a new, inexperienced elephant worker — referred to as “Red” due to his striking ginger hair — gets a little too aggressive with the whip upon a disobedient Mary. The elephant’s patience with its unqualified rider quickly grows thin, and she throws the man off her back and stomps on his head, killing him.
The townspeople, all of whom witnessed the killing, form a mob and demand justice from the circus. Charlie Sparks — the circus’s owner — determines that the only way to quickly resolve the situation (and avoid infamy) is to publicly execute the elephant.
The script for Elephant’s Graveyard was written by George Brant, who frames the narrative as a series of stories told directly to the audience by the play’s characters. The entire cast is on stage for the whole of the one hour, fifteen minute duration of the show, as the lights flicker around the stage to designate who is to speak. Most of the lines are spoken outward while looking audience members in the eyes; dialogue between characters is relatively rare.
The cast of characters can be generally divided into two categories: circusfolk and townsfolk.
The circusfolk are led by a ringmaster, played by Ben Swenson-Klatt ’16 and a manager played by Aaron Telander ’19. Troupe members include: a strongman (Max McKune ’18), “ballet girl” (Tara Maloney ’19), two clowns (Luke Fowler ’19 and JJ McNulty ’19) and a seemingly mute guitar player (Memo Rodriguez ’16).
The townsfolk are comprised of an angry sheriff (Ben Habel ’19), a lonely preacher (Matt Lockett ’19) and various muddy, downtrodden, and/or excitable townspeople played by Aaron Lauby ’19, Avery Evangeline Baker ’19, Christine Menge ’18 and Emery Rankin-Utevsky ’18.
There is one character in the show that lies outside of either classification: a train conducter/railroad spokesman played by Josh Horst ’19. He stands ominously above everyone else for most of the play.
One may notice that many of the faces are new to the Kelsey stage. For most of the cast – with the exception of Menge, McKune, Rodriguez and Swenson-Klatt – this was their first speaking role in a Department show.
The set, designed by Becky Raines ’16, is made up of a glowing skrim backdrop, two scaffolds that stand on opposite sides of the stage and a boardwalk ring that circles a large mound of dirt. Now, this is no cheap replica mud, mind you; the Elephant’s Graveyard production team actually imported over 3,000 pounds of fine, 100% genuine St. Olaf soil into the Theater Building and glued it into place on the Kelsey stage.
Though not an overall cheerful affair (keeping with the 2015-16 Department season’s aversion to comedies) Elephant’s Graveyard is a powerful, moving exploration of society’s darker impulses and demands for grotesque spectacle, as well as how the desire to do something can overwhelm questions of right and wrong.
The second weekend of Elephant’s Graveyard runs Feb. 18-20, at 7:30 p.m. Free tickets are available to students at the box office. The Theater Department’s next show, Great Expectations, directed by guest director Doug Scholz-Carlson ’90, premiers Thursday, March 10.