LSU Theatre’s “Elephant’s Graveyard” is a fast 90 minutes with no intermission.
Joanna Battles’ direction of George Brant’s play lets Brant’s words and a talented cast tell a story that’s still with you the next morning.
The play is set in a small, Tennessee town in 1916 where the townspeople exact revenge on a circus elephant for the killing of a handler. Written in 2008, Brant’s play is based on the true story of the townspeople’s going to considerable lengths to hang the offending elephant.
Using a railroad crane, the elephant’s executioners succeed in a gory, horrific public hanging that is, mercifully, told rather than seen on stage.
So thorough, however, is Battles’ and cast’s ability to make the audience suspend its disbelief that people left the Reilly Theatre Wednesday night each with a vivid, different picture of the hanging.
Even in a college production, there are young (less experienced) actors as well as actors who’ve got some previous work to their credit. LSU’s “Elephant’s Graveyard” is a mix of experienced undergraduate and newcomer student actors. LSU’s Swine Palace Theatre uses MFA and equity actors in its productions.
The undergraduates in “Elephant’s Graveyard” are a promising group from a sensitive, moving performance by Laine Korn who plays the “ballet girl” who trusts the doomed elephant to lift her into the air wrapped in the elephant’s trunk to Amanda Schmidt, the elephant’s trainer.
Sarah Patin is good as a child who watches and participates in a remarkable event that goes from a delightful parade to the town’s turning on the star of the parade, Mary the elephant.
The play is rife with symbolism from the dirty, worn costumes of the performers to the drab clothing of the townspeople who haven’t had a circus visit in years. There is machine vs. man and animal in Brant’s play represented by the circus’ elephants and the train that has brought the circus to backwater Erwin.
Battles doesn’t dwell on any of this, choosing to let the story build momentum. Seth Di-Salvo is a steam shovel operator who goes from enthusiastic member of the mob to a man who realizes the town’s error and offers to dig the hole for Mary’s burial.
Guitarist Brian Beckman and percussionist Courtney Orey provide the show’s music and sound effects.
The LSU production is done in the round, the action taking place in a one-ring circus that becomes a main street and a railroad yard. The play’s action keeps moving as the parade moves in slow motion down the street.
Though miked, the actors are sometimes hard to understand, a problem more of articulation than sound design. Some of strongman Spencer LaBelle’s lines are lost in a Schwarzenegger-like accent.
Clown Victoria Carbajal’s stage business with Orey’s sound effects needs to be sharper and faster.
I saw the play on Pay-What You-Can-Night. The cast will have two performances under its belt by Friday’s opening night. Opening night’s audience can expect an even better effort than the one I saw.
Wil Thomas, as the ringmaster, and Brady Lewis, as the town marshal, are LSU theater veterans whose performances lend stability to a young cast. It will be fun watching Mercedes Wilson and Margaret Lauve, townspeople; Elizabeth Cowan, as the train engineer, and Kamrin Kennedy, who plays the tour manager, develop in future roles.
The show benefits from the work of Ken George, set design; Brandon McWilliams, costumes; Ken White, lighting; Devon Lamond, sound, and stage manager Ellen Johnson.