“Mlima’s Tale,” a Midwest Premiere by Griffin Theatre, is a sensitive and heartrending depiction of greed, and specifically, the corruption associated with the illegal sale of elephant ivory that results in the daily slaughter of approximately 100 of these endangered animals.
The production follows the life and death of Mlima, a roughly 45-year-old male African elephant. Described as a “big tusker,” he is killed by poachers while living in a protected refuge in Kenya.
Written by Lynn Nottage and directed by Jerrell L. Henderson, the genius of “Mlima’s Tale”is the abstract expressionist approach to the staging. It’s told without ever once showing a representational image of an elephant.
I loved that there was not one elephant trunk, ivory tusk, silhouette, or bit of gray cloth to suggest Mlima. Rather, the production team focuses on the “spirit” of the magnificent creature. Expertly played by David Goodloe, he appears bare chested with abstract body markings that immediately communicates a sense of importance and dominance in spite of the actor’s slight frame.
Goodloe transforms from living creature to one ton of valuable cargo. Then he ultimately becomes a gaudy status symbol through a series of physical movements and tableaus created by movement designer Jacinda Ratcliffe.
Thus, the production furthers the expressionist vibe by expertly demonstrating how artistic movement can be incorporated into a non-musical production in order to convey feelings and situations far beyond the use of dialogue or representational imagery.
The brilliant abstract scenic design of Joy Ahn is a series of giant beige tarps interwoven with massive ropes suggesting an elephant-sized scale while simultaneously suggesting the dusty savanna that is his home.
As the play progresses these tarps are also a perfect back drop for a warehouse interior, ship sail and even a posh modern apartment.
Jared Gooding’s lighting design thoughtfully contributes to the overall effect and mood. Properties designer Rachel Lambert leaves the stage uncluttered using minimalist painted crates and few select props, helping to keep us focused on the emotions and not distracted by unnecessary details.
Aside from Mlima, the rest of the cast is portrayed by the talented ensemble of Lewon Johns, Michael Turrentine, Collin McShane, Ben Chang, Christopher Thomas Pow and Sarah Lo who move seamlessly through a number of roles aided by a few costuming clues provided by designer Caitlin McLeod.
Here details are helpful as it aids in keeping the characters defined. For instance, there are the ship’s captain, a wildlife refuge officer and a customs inspector whose uniforms help us separated those roles from other parts played by the same actors.
This is an important story expertly told using creative stagecraft with an ensemble that is totally committed to what they are doing. The production includes some acts of violence which are effectively stylized and are not gratuitous or prurient.
DETAILS: “Mlima’s Tale” presented by Griffin Theatre Company is at the Raven Theatre’s Schwartz Stage, 6157 N. Clark St., Chicago, through March 21, 2020. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission. For tickets and other information call (773) 338-2177 or visit .griffintheatre.
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