SALT LAKE CITY – A beautiful retelling of a horrific true story, Elephant’s Graveyard, is the current production on the stage at Westminster College. Yet, the cast provides this beautiful play with an unflinching production.
In only about an hour’s time, Elephant’s Graveyard tragically portrays the story of a town, a circus, a railroad, a man with red hair, and an elephant. Written by George Brant, the play fictionalizes the real account of the only known lynching of an elephant in the early twentieth century. Back in 1916, during the height of the American circus, the Sparks circus was gaining its own reputation with having the largest performing elephant. With the advent of the railroad, Sparks travels to a muddy town in Tennessee, where “the greatest show on earth” soon becomes complicated and tragic for the circus and the townspeople. After watching Mary, the majestic elephant, kill her new rider, the townspeople are out for blood and demand retribution for the purity of their town. What happens next becomes a part of history.
To bring such a powerful story to life, a production needs strong actors to portray strong emotions. Most of the actors in this production fit into this category, particularly the townspeople. They were able to create a strong sense of community, further identifying the spirit and unity of the town. While all the actors playing townspeople brought depth into their conflicted characters, the couple that really stood out to me were the Hungry Townsperson (Trayven Call) and the Young Townsperson (Tyler Palo). Both gave very moving and memorable performances. As a child, Palo balanced his giddy excitement with just enough innocence to make his role believable. As far as the circus members, the clown (Amanda Corbett) was the definite standout. She was able to portray true and deep emotions throughout while never losing the “clown” persona she had established. Tage Gould as the Ringmaster was also impressive with his money-driven, “the show must go on” attitude.
Elephant’s Graveyard is very much an ensemble based show, although I still felt as though the audience is meant to feel the biggest connection with the (elephant) Trainer, played by Chloie Kaye. Unfortunately, Kaye’s performance was lacking, and kept me from having the deep connection to her character that I wanted to feel. Kaye’s performance seemed to be driven completely by anger. Within the context of the show, this is definitely understandable, though I wanted to see the desperate sadness she must have been feeling come through in her performance. Because I never did I could not completely believe the character she was playing. I believe this lack of empathy decreased my capacity of feeling a more intense cathartic emotion from the production.
The strongest design element in this production was certainly the excellent sound design. Above all, the sound in this production (uncredited) was key to establishing and building the mood. The music was able to create a tense atmosphere at times, contributing to the my agitated and uneasy feelings about the historical events of the story, thus creating a stronger emotional reaction.
Although Elephant’s Graveyard was ultimately successful, that does not mean it was without flaw. Disappointingly, the production got off to a rocky start. Before the play even began, there were separate performances from various members of the Aerial Arts of Utah performers, who collaborated with the Westminster Players for this piece. While I believe the collaboration was probably a good experience for all involved, these pre-show like performances did not benefit the show in any way. The artists were impressive, but aside from the circus aspects, I did not see a connection or point in this addition. They were also quite long, with four different acts in total; it was almost a relief when this aspect was over. At that point, there was a very short actual pre-show, which also did not seem to connect to the mood or message of the play itself. By the time the legitimate production began, I was fairly confused and, quite frankly, bored.
This feeling of boredom continued into the beginning of the play, where there seemed to be exhaustingly long transitions between scenes. Fortunately, director Michael Vought was able to pick up the pacing greatly into the second half of the show. From then on, the production was extremely engaging and was able to build to an intense climax. I also particularly enjoyed the way Vought staged the production with the position of his actors. He was able to create fascinating and powerful images on stage, one of the best of these moments being the tableau created with the circus members.
Westminster College’s production of Elephant’s Graveyard, though not a completely solid production, is definitely worth seeing. Exploring themes of spectacle, violence, revenge, and love, Brandt’s script is heavy and extremely thought provoking. Despite some weaker aspects, the Westminster Players do succeed in effectively telling this incredible story so that the audience members are sure to be affected and moved, thus creating a beautiful production indeed. Audience members should be aware that there is some strong language, and themes that may not be appropriate for children.