by Lynn on March 15, 2024

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the AKI Studio, Toronto, Ont. Produced by Good Old Neon playing until March 17, 2024.

Written by Alexander Offord

Directed by Nicole Wilson

Set by Kris Van Soelen & Nicole Wilson

Lighting by Connor Price-Kelleher

Sound by Alexander Offord

Cast: Allan Cooke

Hayden Finkelshtain

Nicole Wilson

The play Dead Elephants by Alexander Offord and produced by the always inventive Good Old Neon company, uses the metaphor of some notable elephants in history to reference grief, mourning, the death of a child, cruelty to animals, greed and our relationships to animals.

The central story is the silent 1903 film, Electrocuting an Elephant, in which Topsy the elephant was electrocuted because it crushed her circus handler. The circus owner decided to film the event and charge people to watch the electrocution.

There was much discussion between the circus owner and the humane electrician brought in to do the job—how many volts were needed; how long would it take to do the job?

There is the story of Jumbo the elephant that escaped from a circus in St. Thomas, Ont. and was hit by a train when the elephant stood on the tracks, unmoving.

At the heart of the play is a couple (Hayden Finkelshtain and Nicole Wilson) going through deep grief at the death of their infant daughter. It was caused by a home accident that haunts the wife more than the husband. He is distraught at his wife’s emotional withdrawal. She is crushed by grief. They both seek professional help separately, but communication seems impossible for them.

The metaphor of the deaths of the elephants noted in the play stand in for the death of the innocent infant. It’s a bold, if unwieldy literary device here. Playwright Alexander Offord even uses language of separation to describe how Topsy was separated as an ‘infant’ from its mother in Sri Lanka to be taken across the ocean to a circus. It conjures a moving image.

I have always found Nicole Wilson’s direction vivid and impressive—Frankenstein(esque) is a case in point. And while I found her directorial ideas in Dead Elephants also bold, I thought the staging and many of the set pieces unwieldy, where more economy was needed.

Kris Van Soelen and Nicole Wilson designed huge moveable structures supporting a desk and chair for the circus owner to do business; another large structure with bales of hay; others that represented a train. The AKI Studio is large and it looked unwieldy to push and maneuver these structures around the set.

A ‘pigeon’ (Allan Cooke) stares us down as we enter the studio—he wears a helmet with a beak, eyes on the sides, an intriguing costume, and he coos and makes pigeon noises in appropriate places. The ‘pigeon’ also moves set pieces on and off and tends to props. We learn late in the play the significance of the pigeon to the story.

Hayden Finkelshtain plays many parts from an electrician to a vaudevillian in a pink sequined jacket to the grieving father. Nicole Wilson also plays the cigar smoking, arrogant circus owner, a vaudevillian in a pink sequined jacket that partners the other vaudevillian and the emotionally distraught wife and grieving mother.

The most effective scenes are between Hayden Finkelshtain and Nicole Wilson as the grieving parents. It’s raw, angry, angst-ridden and heartbreaking. The production is huge in implication, metaphor and all manner of indications of larger issues. I just don’t know why so much effort seems to have been taken when more clarity and less ‘stuff’ is in order. And while Alexander Offord’s script also has huge implications, I got the feeling that it was overwritten with repetition. Again, less is best.

Experimentation in the theatre is great when trying to create a meaningful play. I also think that clarity is a good thing too. I thought Dead Elephants suffered from too much metaphor and not enough clarity.

Good Old Neon presents:

Plays until March 17, 2024.

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (1 intermission)

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