The show begins with all five actors moving as one and embodying the giant elephant Mlima, stomping around the space, ears flapping almost in the audience's faces, trunk trumpeting. Then the formation breaks apart, and Brian Bose becomes Mlima, in a graceful physical performance that not only makes us believe that this lithe biped is the massive beast, but also makes us feel all of the emotions that Mlima experiences. The uber talented ensemble (consisting of Katie Bradley, Joy Dolo, Clay Man Soo, and Will Sturdivant) become other elephants, as they call out to each other and stomp the floor so hard you can feel it in your bones. Mlima's happy days with mate and children end when the poachers finally find him, resulting in a slow and agonizing death played out in front of us, but his spirit lives on and follows the journey of his tusks, haunting the story. The ensemble also plays many human characters in the story - the hunters, park officials, and all of the individuals responsible for each of the various steps along the way as Mlima's tusks eventually become carvings in a rich couple's home in China. But Mlima is always there, his hands coated in white powder, leaving his mark and reminding us of the life that once was.
|the ensemble as the elephant Mlima|
(photo courtesy of TTT)
Joel Sass's minimalist set pieces include a stool and a couple stepladders painted in a wood grain, and spears or guns made charmingly out of bamboo. The costumes are similarly minimalist, but with a surprising number of changes for the ensemble, from their basic t-shirts and pants, to the addition of various shirts, jackets, hats, and even full costume changes, which really helps us keep track of the characters and know instantly who they are. Brian as Mlima is dressed in sepia toned baggy drop-crotch pants and a one-sleeved shirt, one arm bare to represent the elephant's tusk, changing into an elegant ivory tunic and pants when Mlima's tusk complete their long journey (costume design by Joe Burch III).
One of the great features of TTT is that the story is always accompanied by a soundscape, this time by Dameun Strange on some kind of sound machine, as well as various noisemakers, for an almost constant underscore that never calls attention to itself but is always there to provide atmosphere and tone.
This fascinating play by Lynn Nottage (whose grittily realistic plays Sweat and Floyd's/Clyde's were recently seen at the Guthrie) premiered at The Public Theater in 2018, and tells a fantastical tale of the very real threat to one of the planet's most majestic species. In this allegory you may also see a threat to the overall ecosystem, or the trafficking of another kind of African bodies. I really can't imagine this play in a more traditional theater setting, it lends itself so perfectly to Ten Thousand Things' unique brand of storytelling. Without any fancy tricks of lighting or technical elements, simply employing the ages old tools of movement, expression, music, words, imagination, and the magic of acting.
Mlima's Tale continues at Open Book in downtown Minneapolis Thursdays through Sundays until March 12.