Review: DEAD ELEPHANTS at Aki Studio

Inventive show could be pruned from Jumbo size

By: Mar. 20, 2024
Review: DEAD ELEPHANTS at Aki Studio
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There’s an elephant in the room. In fact, there are several.

Good Old Neon’s DEAD ELEPHANTS, now being performed in the Daniels Spectrum’s Aki Studio, packs more pachyderms into its devised script than you might think possible in such a small space, though none of the fine beasts are ever seen on stage.

There’s the story of Topsy, the elephant famously electrocuted by Thomas Edison in a public spectacle for the “murder” of a circus worker. There’s Jumbo, another circus elephant, who met a grisly end in 1885 on the railroad tracks in a small Ontario town, putting St. Thomas on the map as the poor animal was erased from existence. There are the unnamed elephants of a French zoo, consumed as a delicacy during a war-driven famine. The play has an intriguing premise, snappy acting, and even a talking pigeon. Much like a jolt of Edison’s alternating current, it crackles with energy, and at a lean 90-100 minutes, it might be a dynamite show. At two and a half hours and one too many layers, it can’t quite sustain its electric pace, but it’s still intriguing, compelling viewing.

Alexander Offord’s play was developed as a “dynamic process,” revolving around the 1903 film about Topsy, “Electrocuting an Elephant.” Though most of its stories have a basis in history, the production stresses that historical accuracy was not a particular concern, so don’t expect a realistic docudrama about Edison’s attempt to discredit Tesla’s alternating current by using the splashy death to frighten the populace. Instead, the play functions as an exploration of the ways humans interact with elephants and creatures we consider “lesser,” using them as projections for our own frustrations and entertainments for our own amusement. It further delves into the fear and the freedom of being insignificant in the scheme of history, particularly in its pigeon character, who ties together all the timelines with fourth-wall-breaking commentary.

When the play presents the related elephant stories in an exaggerated, almost dreamlike way, there’s a lot to enjoy. The stage is designed like we’re sitting in a circus tent, as the rings of the stories move in and out around us on rolling pallets. Lighting designer Connor Price-Kelleher places lines of lightbulbs around the edge the playing space; the bulbs pulse with electricity at opportune moments.

Hayden Finkelshtain and Nicole Wilson, who play all the pairs of characters, dazzle us as ringmasters before adopting multiple roles, such as the circus worker who dies by elephant and his rough-edged girlfriend, the Coney Island manager who arranges the elephant execution and an ASPCA representative, the electrician who programs the fatal charge, and two soldiers who hunger for a better world and a large meal. Finkelshtain and Wilson weave in and out of their roles with easy facility, Wilson (also the show’s director) a particular standout in the way she contrasts one character’s swagger with another’s hurt fragility, and a third’s growing heaviness.

Connecting all these rings, or as Offord puts it, “spokes” in the wheel, our resident pigeon Allan Cooke entertainingly wanders through the proceedings in a rubber mask that’s just this side of surreal. He coos and pecks at the audience, contrasting the mundanity of pigeon existence with that of the noble elephant; “Where do all the dead pigeons go?” he asks us, mentioning that pigeons eat their young, while elephants mourn theirs.

And that’s where the other play in the middle of DEAD ELEPHANTS comes in. This last spoke in the wheel, or perhaps the real elephant in the room, is a more pedestrian domestic drama about the slow death of a relationship after the parents lose a child in infancy, the mother becoming more and more elephantine in her sorrow and desire to take up space. Though this narrative reinforces themes of honouring the insignificant with an honest discussion of death, it feels like it’s grafted to the rest of the collage in an attempt to make the other stories more marketable and relevant, something audiences will recognize as deep. Despite the strong performances, I found myself deflating every time we returned to this thread, finding it less engaging compared to the circus around it.

It’s also easy to feel resentful when entertainment makes assumptions about what the audience thinks or feels and then belittles viewers for ostensibly thinking it, especially when it is an assumption the writers have either encouraged or flat out told us to accept. DEAD ELEPHANTS veers sharply into this territory at its climax, berating the viewer for finding a connection between this story and the rest of the play, and robbing the domestic sequence of its power and purpose by deliberately severing the thread of metaphor that the writing has otherwise carefully crafted.

While certain aspects of DEAD ELEPHANTS may try one’s patience, the show as a whole is inventive, creative, and ambitious. I did find myself wishing we could get to hear from the elephants themselves, as they function as negative space within the play, eclipsed by a chattier pigeon. One wonders what they would make of all the trumpeting going on around them.

But perhaps adding anything more to the already lengthy work would be beating a dead elephant.

Photo of Nicole Wilson and Hayden Finkelshtain provided by the company