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Elephant's Graveyard shows the darkness of the soul
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Elephant's Graveyard shows the darkness of the soul

by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

Elephant's Graveyard
Balagan Theatre
Through September 26


Balagan Theatre's current production is Elephant's Graveyard by George Brant. The way it is staged (not knowing if this is a script device or a director's choice), there are two sides of the stage: the circus side and the townies' side. It looks at first to be a comedy, although there are perilously few jokes that worked opening night. Perhaps that's because it really isn't a comedy, after all. It's an exploration of human darkness and the kind of horror that lack of attention can cause.

The circus comes to town with elephants. This small town is wild with excitement, since nothing much happens in town and most townies don't ever expect to leave for somewhere more exciting. It is 1916, and the setting reflects small-town life, where there is a regular train through town that everyone can set their watches by.

In the circus, the tour manager (Ashley Bagwell) allows an untrained stranger to ride at the head of the regular elephants' parade through town, and the stranger hits the lead elephant badly and the elephant throws the rider off and stomps on him. The town becomes enraged and demands the elephant pay the same price as any human murderer. So should the ringmaster give them what they want, or try to make people understand that the tour manager and the untrained stranger were really at fault? The tour manager heedlessly ignores the elephant trainer (Ray Tagavilla), but the elephant trainer doesn't make enough of a stand to protect his elephants, and the stranger somehow believes he is capable of understanding and riding elephants after only one day in the circus.

The human darkness is evident in the rush to judgment and the demand for blood. The elephant did what was natural and even appropriate, but the townies do not budge in their demands. Somehow, they expect a kind of purification by killing the elephant.

This is an ensemble piece and there are nicely done roles - in particular Sharon Barto, who plays a young kid enthralled with elephants, Michael D. Blum as the ringmaster with the ultimate decision, Jose Amador, representing the people of color in town, and a heart-tugging performance by Ray Tagavilla as the elephant trainer as he loses the fight for his elephants and has to do the unthinkable as an act of kindness.

The production is about 75 minutes straight through, but even so, the beginning drags a bit through the "funny" stuff. While the set-ups are necessary to understand the play, the beginning is too portentous, and should be quicker and lighter. The costumes - fun period pieces provided by Hannah Schnabel - are terrific. The stage, designed by Ed Cook III, is a suitable mishmash of circus-y things and town things on either side of the stage. The music is played on stage by several able musicians (Jake Groshong, Marty Ofsowitz, Banton Foster) who are part of the ensemble.

The play is based on a true story about a small town in Tennessee. A cosmopolitan city like Seattle might never have felt determined to kill the murdering elephant, especially when strangers are strangers and people keep to themselves. Perhaps even small-town inhabitants are too sophisticated, these days, to want to kill an elephant. Even so, human nature has dark and irrational sides. The play makes that timelessly clear. For more information, go to www.balagantheatre.org or www.brownpapertickets.com or call 800-838-3006.

Comments on reviews go to sgncritic@gmail.com.

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