ELEPHANTS AND GOLD at the BERKSHIRE FRINGE 2009
A Theatre Review by Gail M. Burns
Three weeks ago my family adopted two seven-year-old miniature dachshunds. Needless to say, the intervening days have been interesting ones as two different species learned to cohabitate in harmony. We have all spent a lot of time figuring each other out, and we have made great progress, but only because we all – dogs and humans – invested a lot of time and effort into the process.
I thought about this recent personal experience while watching Eliza Ladd’s “poetic music play” Elephants and Gold at the Berkshire Fringe last night.
While humans are animals, there is a difference between the species we call “animals” and ourselves. Because we don’t really understand those differences, we don’t have words to explain them. This is the issue that Eliza Ladd has struggled with ever since she read the October 2006 article by Charles Siebert in the New York Times Magazine entitled “Elephant Crack-Up.”
Here is what Ladd writes in her program notes: “I embarked on a theatrical unearthing of the meeting ground between elephants and humans. This performance, developed in an ensemble process, embraces image, sound song, body, and object as theatrical languages that tell a story of the elephant human conflict. This contemporary conflict is housed in a larger curiosity about human evolution, wildness, and a search for the experience of the human animal.”
According to Seibert’s article, humans have so mismanaged their relations with elephants that we are causing them psychological harm. The lessons to be learned from this calamity have implications for the ecological and psychological health of the whole planet.
Ladd again: “Witnessing the contemporary dysfunction of the elephant species has led me to ask, what is the teaching of the elephants? More than pity or guilt, how can this story point to a human waking up? What can we learn about our place in the natural order of things?
In a juxtaposition of evolutionary time and the contemporary world, Elephants and Gold creates theatrical space for the meeting of epic and ordinary. And in this place I desire to create an experience of humanity, possibility, and presence.”
Artists often write impressive pieces of text like this, and it is sometimes difficult to find the confluence of the stated purpose and the reality of the performance. It is one thing to have the idea, it is another to communicate it clearly and in an entertaining manner to an audience.
Ladd, her five performers – Margot Bassett, Vincet Luce DeGeorge, NicHi Douglas, Stephanie Fittro, and Adam Patterson – and fellow musician Ian Smit do an excellent job of this and create a fascinating series of images in the black box that is the Liebowitz Studio Theater at Simon’s Rock. Some immediately click and resonate while others are inscrutable, and I am sure that different ones work for different people. That is the best an artist can do – reach out and hope to find like minds, or attempt to awaken new paths in viewers new to the concepts being presented.
“The director-stage manager-playwright uses costumes, lighting, objects, sounds, movements, voices, instruments, language, screams, everything he needs to penetrate through the deafness and defenses of his audience. He must reach them.” – Mary Caroline Richards
“An artist is a specialist in synthesis of the physical practical world. He analyzes or breaks up only to rearrange and ultimately to resynthesize.” – Claes Oldenburg
The most amazing bit of stage magic is the impersonation of elephants by the human cast members. Using only their own bodies and pairs of iron hooks on their hands, the humans bend at the hips and move in ways that are truly elephantine. They move their heads constantly, as if the giant wing-like ears were protruding and the trunk swaying. They drag their arms, using the hooks to make the heavy footfalls of the pachyderm. When they sit or lie down they fold their legs one at a time and lower slowly and heavily to the ground. No costumes or puppetry is involved, and yet the transformation is complete.
I have included a photograph which will at least show you the iron hooks, which I am incapable of describing concisely in words. But a still photo does not show the full range of motion involved.
The hooks are used as bones and, of course, the valuable ivory tusks for which so many elephants are slaughtered. There are also stones large enough for a person to stand on but small enough to be carried by one person. The performers periodically perch on these, the way we make elephants balance on small pedestals in the circus.
At other times the performers carry buckets, each filled with a different natural material – wood chips, gravel, sand, etc. – which they carefully scoop out to form mounds or lines on the floor. Ropes and staffs are also manipulated.
I found the endless rearrangement of materials and props to be the least interesting parts of the performance, while the sound, movement, and physical interaction of the players was the most evocative and interesting. Ladd has written six songs for Elephants and Gold which are performed instrumentally and vocally in different by different configurations of musicians and singers through the show. They are folksy and tuneful. I particularly liked the closing number You and Me which spoke about the similarity and bonds between all terrestrial life forms.
I am not much of a sci-fi fan, but it seems to me that none of the “aliens” Hollywood has imagined over the years come anywhere close to being as physically different from humans as elephants. In other words, we couldn’t imagine an elephant. And although we have come a long way in our understanding of them as creatures with a language and a complex social system, we still don’t get them, anymore than we get whales or gorillas or any other species.
I was about to begin this next sentence with the word “humankind” when I realized that what I was about to write was how very unkind our kind are – to each other, to other species, to the air and the water and the plants, even to the earth itself. Always cutting and hacking and digging and grabbing. Mine, mine, mine. More, more, more. From time to time some of us wake up and realize how destructively and stupidly we are behaving and try to say or do something about it. Seibert and Ladd are speaking up now about this particular issue, which captures people’s attention and imagination because the ways in which we are disrupting and destroying elephant culture is much the same as the ways we are destroying our own. To quote, God forbid, Disney’s High School Musical, we’re all in this together. The more we live and let live, learn and observe rather than hate and kill, the better off we’re all going to be.
Elephants and Gold runs through August 10 Berkshire Fringe in the Daniels Arts Center on the Simon’s Rock campus in Great Barrington, MA. The 2009 Berkshire Fringe Festival continues through August 17. Tickets are just $15 each to the Main Events, and they have lots of free stuff as well. Call the box office at 413-320-4175 or visit www.berkshirefringe.org
An Elephant Crack-Up
By CHARLES SIEBERT
Published: October 8, 2006
Margot Bassett and Stephanie Fittro as elephants in “Elephants and Gold.”