The elephant in the room

Snowlion gets dark with a musical tragedy
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  April 17, 2014


TRAPPING THE RINGLEADER Mr. Bones and the rest of the We Hack Minstrel Show crew employ
unnerving physicality in Snowlion Repertory Company's The Elephant Piece.

How will we — that is, humanity — tell the story of how we fucked up everything? Of the air and waters we befouled, the climate we skewed, the species we killed off? Speculative literature is ever more concerned with human-wrought environmental catastrophe (e.g., the sub-genre of “cli-fi”), and another example of such a humanity-incriminating narrative is onstage now in Portland: The Elephant Piece, by Darryl Curry, is a speculative musical fiction about one minstrel show troupe seeking the last elephant on earth. Snowlion Repertory Company presents this riotous circus of a dystopia, with Al D’Andrea directing a stellar ensemble cast in a disorienting, absurdist production that’s sometimes puckish, sometimes horrifying.

On a set of low platforms arranged three-ring style, with a festive swath of red, yellow, and purple above, floundering ringmaster Mr. Bones (David Arthur Bachrach) is harangued by the other members of the We Hack Minstrel Show. They are loud, childish, and impatient. They want a story. And they don’t want to hear Mr. Bones’s sweet tales about how an elephant has a heart-shaped brain or an India-shaped ear. Meanwhile, in a second story line, a regular old non-circus middle-aged widower named Paul (Alan Forrest McLucas, with affecting Everyman befuddlement and sorrow) is trying to help his young son deal with his mother’s death by taking him to various amusements. The stories slowly converge as this excellent ensemble, accompanied by Jim Colby’s simple, expressive keyboard, careens through a range of human attitudes toward the last of the elephants.

Snowlion’s colorful ensemble includes a punk carney wearing chains (Bartley Mullin), a cheeky vamp in leopard-print (Autumn Pound), and a blue-faced prig in flowing scarves (Kara Haupt), among others (Angelica Phipps, Gabriel Walker, Jim Colby, Janie Downey Maxwell, John Kreutzberger, Margit Ahlin, and Timothy Hartel). In their quirky get-ups — patchwork madras, studded boots, a necklace of silver high-heels — they’re a circus crew that veers readily into Clockwork Orange territory, and they perform some unusual, unnerving vocal play and physical movements. “We hack away from day to day,” they belt out, then riff on the line ominously: “Hacka-hacka-hacka.” They chant the word “meat” fast and low like a racing heartbeat. Their whispers veer suddenly into loud singing punctuated by plastic bats whacking the floor. They ritualistically encircle and then hold back Mr. Bones in an orange net.

Such funhouse texture reflects a script that Snowlion developed collaboratively through workshops and exercises, and that was then focused and shaped by Curry. The expressionistic result is both liberatingly playful and devastatingly, sometimes chillingly taut. Over the build of the ensemble’s deceptively game-like songs and sequences — the Hackers create an ideal human in a magic hat; they bid on and then rape a “shapely little country” — the script satirizes anthropocentrism as a sort of kooky fascist imperialism. Think Brecht crossed with Margaret Atwood, with the Paul sequences striking an odd dissonance with their “Back to School Special” earnestness.

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