The Elephant and the Whale (Theater Notes)

27 Jun

The circus traveled around the country. Pulling into cities, emptying box cars, putting up tents, taking them down again, and moving on. It wasn’t a big top. In fact it wasn’t even a medium top. It was a very small, small top, a tent that held “all the fun and a quarter of the action.” But after 67 tours, the circus got tired and wondered what was next.

This is not the end of The Night Circus. It is the beginning of “The Elephant and The Whale,” a magical play conceived by Redmoon Theater’s Frank Maugeri with an original story and songs by Seth Bockley with composer Kevin O’Donnell, produced in collaboration with The Chicago Children’s Theatre.

Ella the Elephant has been the star of the small Hoogebeck Family show for years.  When the family sells the circus in 1919 to a Mr. Quigley who likes to think bigly, Ella and the family are in for some unpleasant surprises. Mr. Quigley wants to turn the show into “Under the Sea,” complete with mermaids in salt water tanks. He accidentally brings a baby whale to the Midwest when he imports seawater for his circus. The whale grows bigger and more miserable. Ella grows more discontent. And an unlikely friendship ensues.

This tale about the two largest mammals on earth is created in miniature. A bicycle built for four doubles as a pre-cinematic moving screen that forms a backdrop as the Hoogebeck’s and Ella’s pre-story is told. Once we reach the play’s present day, the actors dance, tumble, and glide across the stage in a glorious combination of physical comedy and dramatic movement.  They move in perfect sync with each other, creating a monumental story on a small stage, telling an epic tale in 60 minutes.

Four actors play all of the parts, holding mechanical wooden masks in front of their faces for some characters, operating puppets for others. The Whale doesn’t speak; a saw played with a violin bow evokes the sound of his whines and tears. It is a sad, mellifluous sound that asks for empathy. Ella is expressed through song, in third person. We learn that she is graceful, dexterous, and loyal.

suitcase set 2True to Redmoon’s reputation, many theatrical tools combine to create the magic–live-action stick puppets operated in suitcase-sized sets that are moved around the stage, acrobatics, hand puppets, masks. When a suitcase is slammed shut, we  feel the constraints of the circus cage and boxcars and how claustrophobic they are for Ella and the Whale. We flinch when the case is closed, not just because of the loud bang, but because we know an animal is inside, yearning to be free.E&W bicycle

Shadow puppets are used to tell the story when it hits the open sea. The sudden change in dimensions and the hilarity of movement convey Ella and the Whale’s dizzying freedom, achieved together. Eventually, they must part–she must live on land, of course, and he in the sea. But their friendship is the truest, most touching one might imagine.

The children we came with were a bit fidgety on their gym mat as they waited for the play to begin. Then they sat, transfixed, moving only to turn and give us a thumbs up and to balance on hands and knees to get a better look. I’ve long wanted to experience Redmoon Theater’s renowned approach to puppetry and pageantry and I was not disappointed. But, I think there is no better review of a play than an eight-year old saying “That was the best play I’ve ever seen.”

Originally in the theater this spring, the play is enjoying a limited run, with free admission, at Chicago Park District venues.

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