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Review: Oakton's High School's Elephant's Graveyard

Oakton High School's Elephant's Graveyard. Photo by Vanessa Gelinas.
Oakton High School's Elephant's Graveyard. Photo by Vanessa Gelinas.
Editor's note: The following review was submitted to Patch through the Cappies program, where high school students trained as critics submit reviews of high school theater performances. 

By Maura O'Reilly of Washington Lee High School

Silhouettes of characters against a deep blue background. Sniffles in the silence. This simple picture created the final image of Oakton High School's poignant production of Elephant's Graveyard.

Based off of a true story, George Brant's 2008 play Elephant's Graveyard tackles the issue of inhumanity and the emotional journey of a town in the midst of a tragedy, and is often discussed as being written as an allusion to capital punishment. Mary the Elephant was the main attraction in Sparks World Famous Shows Circus, a cross-country traveling spectacle. In the town of Erwin, Tennessee in 1916, a wannabe elephant trainer was killed by Mary after he tried to keep her in line during the traditional pre-circus parade. After this catastrophe, the townspeople of Erwin insist on ridding the world of this “murderer” by hanging her from a railroad crane. After a brutal and botched first attempt and a successful second try, the emotions of the town begin to change.

With minimal set, subtly powerful lighting, and a cohesive ensemble, Oakton's production evoked sniffles as well as chuckles from the audience. All of the elements were carefully interwoven to create a highly believable world with perfect balance between the lightheartedness of a coming circus and the despair of a tragedy and regret.

Christine Cox led the cast as the ringleader. A joy to watch, Cox embodied a sleazy yet affectionate ringmaster who cares only for the well being of her circus, at least for the first half of the play. The raw hopelessness and distress that shone through her ringleader facade when she realized that her beloved moneymaker elephant was more than just a prop was honest and heartbreaking.

A clumsy showgirl disguising herself as a ballerina, Emilia Brennan displayed the perfect amount of awkward as the Ballet Girl with her attempts at being graceful by pointing her feet and prancing around the stage. Hailey Dougherty as the Muddy Townsperson drew giggles from the audience with her crazy attitude and eager energy and excitement. Alex James as the Trainer was authoritative and jealous, yet had the right touch of caring and sympathy for his closest friends, the elephants. Grant Seastream as the Engineer also brought a powerful presence with his pride for the railroad taking precedent over his feelings for the situation. Seastream also managed to draw audible reaction from the audience, in the form of scoffs of frustration with his character.

The three-person band, Walter and the Dirty Boots (John Fee, Jack Goodin, and Justin Pirrochi), was a clever addition. Providing a mostly original or freshly arranged underscore for the whole show, the transitions between pieces were unnoticeable with each song becoming more dark as the story progressed. To further supplement the story, the band also supplied sound effects such as a train clackity-clacking its way down the tracks.

The minimal set was effective in helping focus the story on the action instead of the surroundings. When there was more than just a curtain, the set was magnificently simple. The centerpiece was a multicolored circus tent, raised from the ground by the actors. To accompany the set, the lighting design by Jess Farham was exquisite, with mood lighting emphasizing the action in each scene. A highlight was the almost unnoticeable fade to a stark red during the killing of the untrained elephant trainer.

Clocking in at a perfect length of 75 minutes, the entire cast of Oakton High School's Elephant's Graveyard should be commended for producing an emotionally challenging show that was deceptively complicated and left most of the audience in tears.

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