Strong performances and expert tech ushered in Oakton’s “Elephant’s Graveyard” showing mounting intensity as spellbound audience ‘watched’ elephant’s execution


Ringmaster Christine Cox and Cast (Vanessa Gelinas)
December 13, 2013

All reviews are written by Cappies student critics and edited by Cappies adult mentors prior to publishing.

Margaret Gorguissian, a student at West Potomac High School , reviews “Elephant’s Graveyard” performed by Oakton High School as part of The Cappies Critics and Awards Program.

“It was September, and there was a town, and a circus, and a railroad, and a man with red hair, and an elephant.”  The words echoed through Oakton High School’s theater again and again, ringing in my ears, over and over like the clack-clack of a railroad car.  Oakton’s performance of Elephant’s Graveyard was a sobering reminder that humanity is capable of rising to great heights — and just how far we have to fall. 

George Brant wrote Elephant’s Graveyard to tell the story of Mary the elephant, who was hanged in 1916 in Erwin, Tennessee for stepping on her handler’s head.  As a nod to the oral tradition through which the tale was passed down, Mary’s story is told in a series of monologues given by the townspeople of Erwin and the members of Sparks’ World-Famous Circus.  At Oakton, there was no elephant, no chain, no railroad crane onstage — only the stories, and the people who told them. 

The cast embodied the tight-knit communities of the townspeople and circus folk, conveying individuality and relationships in spite of the lack of dialogue.  The ensemble would remain in character even when not giving a monologue, adding to the mood of the scene without overwhelming it.  Ensemble shows are a tricky business, but this cast rose to the challenge, particularly when creating tableaux and speaking in unison.

Prominent among the show’s standouts was Christine Cox in the role of the Ringmaster, the leader who knows what the people have seen and who tries to give them what they want.  Cox demonstrated excellent stage presence and character commitment, genuinely depicting the struggle between what is right and what is the will of the people.  Alex James was equally notable as Mary’s Trainer, navigating the nuances of his complex role with ease.  Hailey Dougherty as the Muddy Townsperson was also impressive, maintaining an accent and a hunched physicality consistently throughout the show.

The show was underscored by Walter and the Dirty Boots, an onstage band comprised of students John Fee (drums), Jack Goodin (banjo), and Justin Pirrochi (guitar).  Pirrochi and Goodin composed twelve pieces of original music, crafting themes and leitmotifs that effectively contextualized and characterized different roles.  Fee provided many of the sound effects as well, evoking railroads and roustabouts with a flick of his wrist.  The excellently executed music provided an undercurrent that carried the show that became distinctively darker as the justice meted out by the people turned sour. 

The set was minimalistic, featuring a well-placed bench and a circus tent that could be raised and lowered with a pulley system.  Costumes and makeup delineated the muddy townsfolk and the brightly colored circus workers, individually characterizing each role and staying true to the period.  Lighting design utilized the cyclorama to add to each scene’s visual timbre, and contributed to the darkening mood throughout the play. 

It is shows like these that change an audience’s state of mind: after the cast takes their final bow, we are left wondering, questioning the status quo.  When we rise from the mud, do we clean ourselves off, or do we sink back into it?  Do we judge based on actions, or our investment?  It is said that an elephant never forgets… but it is something mankind does far too often.

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