Saturday, February 25, 2023

"Mlima's Tale" by Ten Thousand Things at Open Book

It's been three years since Ten Thousand Things has been able to fulfill their mission of bringing theater to those who would otherwise never experience it, performing in prisons, community centers, shelters, and other public spaces. It feels like a good sign that maybe we're moving beyond the pandemic, or learning how to live with it, that they're able to perform in these spaces that have been deemed unsafe for the past few years. They're also back at their home base for public performances - Open Book on Washington in Minneapolis. Even though I've seen a few TTT shows at various other spaces in the last few years, for some reason this small brick-walled wood-floored room above this more-than-a-bookstore (with its coffee shop reopening soon) feels like the TTT of old. And what a perfect show to return with - Lynn Nottage's Mlima's Tale, following the journey of a "big tusker" elephant through his life in the Kenyan bush, his death at the hands of poachers, and even the journey of his tusks in the ivory market. It's funny and fantastical and tragic, and as always beautifully brought to life by some of #TCTheater's best artists in a small space with "All the Lights On," harnessing the power of collective imagination as we travel the world with Mlima. See it at Open Book now through March 12.

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)
Ansa Akyea directs the piece, with choreography/movement by Darrius Strong, in a way that we can clearly follow the story through the ever-changing locations. Despite the somber story, the play has a feeling of lightness and playfulness, including some moments of humor that most often come from Joy (the most aptly named human I know) interacting with the crowd. The cast displays an impressive array of accents from the African and Asian continents, as well as British and others (they wisely employed three dialect coaches to cover this range: Patrick Chew, Anh-Thu Pham, and Wariboko Semenitari). 

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.


Join me and my fellow Twin Cities Theater Bloggers for a special event at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres! Get $20 off the ticket price for the March 4 matinee performance of the regional premiere of the super fun and heart-warming musical The Prom, and stick around after the show for a talk-back with some of the cast. Read my review of The Prom here, find more info about the event in the Facebook event here, and purchase discount tickets using code TCTB1 or by clicking on this link (discount valid for any performance through March 12).