We were induced to take a break from our moratorium on reviewing indie theatre shows by a variety of factors in the case of Edison’s Elephant, now at Metropolitan Playhouse through January 25. There’s the subject matter (circuses, early cinema, 19th century American culture, Coney Island, etc), there’s the venue (a favorite of mine), and a number of the artists involved; but there’s also the synchronous coincidence that I read the book it seems largely based on only last week.
Former Daily News columnist Michael Daly’s Topsy is a masterstroke idea for a book. Essentially Daly used that famous 1903 Edison film of the public electrocution of an elephant at Coney Island as a touchstone for the investigation of all the forces that made that appalling moment happen. After all, the mindset that made the event possible appears (on the face of it) to be so alien to ours…but is it? We’ll return to this question! You can see the footage for yourself if you choose. It’s available on Youtube. I won’t insert it here out of respect for people who don’t want to look at such things. Daly unravels the context for us, starting with the self-evidently relevant and radiating outward. We thus get not just Topsy’s story, but the entire history of performing elephants (and their treatment) in America, previous elephant deaths and tragedies, the broader human and animal rights landscape at the time (including human slavery and the use of corporal punishment), the corporate history of commercial electricity, and (where it all comes together) the development of electricity as an instrument of death.
While Daly does gets a little carried away by tangents sometimes, he does a splendid job of getting us close to the reality of these particular events by making us experience the personalities of the elephants. He humanizes them. I won’t say “anthropomorphizes”, which implies the superimposition of human qualities on a beast that doesn’t have any. Elephants mourn their dead, they paint pictures, they make friends. And dogs (which an operative working for Edison killed by the dozens in barbaric experiments) are similarly smart and sensitive creatures. For us, knowing what we now know about elephants, their high intelligence, their social natures, their rich emotional lives — treating them with an indifferent cruelty seems unthinkable, until you remember how some people treat other people. The main value in a book like this is in raising awareness, not necessarily about any particular political issue, but in treating all creation with responsible humanity. The issues Topsy brings up can hardly be said to be behind us, no matter much we want to pat ourselves on the backs for certain systemic reforms and improvements.
There was a time when I was under the spell of Wilde, when the idea of all didactic theatre was anathema to me. It usually is bad, after all. I can’t think of anything worse than television movies about one or another particular social or political issue. But ultimately, like all Americans, I’m a sucker for all sorts of naked preachifying when it is effective, and above all when it is not stupid. I watched Twelve Angry Men at three o’clock in the morning the other day. I like to sit there and go, “Which guy would I act like?” (I feel like I’ve behaved like all of them, except maybe the old man, at one time or another. And the old man is creeping up on me).
And then there’s this, and it’s something I touched on a little bit in No Applause. Among the secular institutions, I don’t know what else we have but theatre to effectively arouse sympathy in people. Cinema, while uniquely able to show evil in documentary form, must be artfully assembled in order to communicate that what we are seeing IS evil. A case in point is that Edison film of Topsy’s execution. Most of us look at it and are sickened. It could even produce nightmares. But as presented by the filmmakers the event is morally neutral. You just know it’s porn for somebody. They can look at this heinous act and feel free to like what they see. The theatre, by contrast is, social. A playwright, a director, and actors all interpose their points of view, and we are privy to the reactions of the audience members around us. The theatre was born in a church. It awakens social instincts. But that still doesn’t ever give it license to be stupid.
Edison’s Elephant never is. Playwrights Chris Van Strander and David Koteles appear to have made Topsy their Bible, and they quote it chapter and verse. They’ve adapted it much like certain other non-fiction books (e.g., The Right Stuff, A Prefect Storm) have been adapted, by focusing in on a few key players rather than trying to transpose the entire universe to the stage. Structurally they’ve made an interesting choice, weaving together a rope of three separate strands: those of Edison himself (John Thomas Waite), Topsy’s last keeper Whitey Alt (Kevin Orton) and a hapless, fictional typist who has the unpleasant chore of typing up the notes of the Edison lab’s dog electrocuting experiments (Lynn Berg). The play takes some liberties (Alt’s part is a composite and greatly exaggerated here for the sake of story; so, too, for that matter is Edison’s). The play relies far too much on inactive first person narrative and could stand to be trimmed back by as much as a quarter or a third. But, much to its credit the writers don’t shy away from the richness of 19th century language, and I only caught 2 or 3 glaring anachronisms, and those seemed there for intentional theatrical effect.
I was also impressed with David Elliott’s direction, which struck the right note from the very instant you walked into the theatre (or should I say “nickelodeon”): a rag time piano player (Sean Gough) accompanies a show of Edison film shorts: acrobats, boxing cats, Native Americans on display — this is the context of the real life horror show, it’s all show biz. (It’s easy for someone with a roving mind to make the equation to reality tv). I found Elliott’s work with the actors to be impeccable, from the aptness of the casting right through to the finished performances. Alyssa Simon, who plays two very different characters, in wildly divergent styles, was a particular stand-out. The guy who plays Edison, John Thomas Waite, sort of made my jaw drop. He really looks just like one’s idea of Edison. And there’s a kid! (CJ Trentacosta). We never get to see kids in downtown theatre; it’s almost as great a production value as a performing elephant.
And we watch all these characters grope their way towards some truth about their common experience; all are uncomfortable about it, though some are in denial. (And one little old lady, played by Wendy Merritt, is clearly a psychopath!) And in the end, he gives us that film (how could he not?) thus making us complicit in this crime, making us feel a little dirty for what we’ve just seen. And it kind of makes you wonder what atrocities we’re contributing toward with our time and our talent and our money in 2014. That is, if you’re the kind to worry about such things.
Edison’s Elephants resumes performances tonight as part of The Guided Stage Festival. For information and tickets go to metropolitanplayhouse.org
Video interview with the two playwrights can be seen here.