Sometimes things just come together: The right script finds the right bunch of actors, the right director knows how to harness them all together, the theater is precisely the right shape and size, and the audience is full and generous. The room starts to hum and you forget time's passing. Only once you're clapping do you notice that your foot's fallen asleep.
Elephant's Graveyard, at Balagan Theatre, is one of those productions—which, frankly, is a bit of a surprise. Since its formation in 2006, the company has wandered up hills and into ditches (its production of The Spinning, an "original S&M love story musical written in iambic pentameter," in 2007, was the kind of searing disaster that tempts one to swear off theater forever), but this production is the first time Balagan has stood on a mountaintop. In the bar before the show, the bartender told a patron that the play was "like being stabbed in the heart." She wasn't wrong.
Nothing radical or groundbreaking happens in Elephant's Graveyard—just meticulous, fantastic storytelling by a midcareer playwright (George Brant), a young director (Jason Harber), and a pack of veteran fringe actors. The script—based on a true story about a traveling circus that, in 1916, stumbled into gory disaster in a muddy Tennessee town—is, like the best art, microscopically specific with echoes that radiate outward across time. It conjures a world with its own atmosphere and terrible internal logic. It's mesmerizing.
The star attraction of Sparks Circus, led by a frustrated but ambitious ringmaster, is Mary, America's largest circus elephant. Sparks brags that Mary is three inches taller than Jumbo. When the circus comes to town, it stages a promotional parade. Everybody in Erwin, Tennessee—the young and the old, the white and the brown—turns out to watch. Then something awful happens, setting off a story that I shy from telling because I want you to see this play. And I want it to give you the same pleasure it gave me. Learning what happens, and how, and how the 13 characters understand what happens in different ways, is the primary pleasure of Elephant's Graveyard. It's an old trick, but it works.
A wooden boardwalk runs across Balagan's long, shallow stage with 13 actors split into three camps: six circus people (ringmaster, clown, elephant trainer, et al.) on one side, six townies (the marshal, the preacher, a local housewife, et al.) on the other, and a railroad engineer in the middle. The circus people describe the gap between their sparkly, presentational surfaces and the muck of their lives. The ringmaster, a world-weary and resonantly smoky-voiced Michael Blum, is trying to keep up with his competition. The clown, played by a menacing Chris Bell, his face stretched into a rictus, snarls sardonically about hard labor and heartbreak.
The depressed townies have their own problems: The sensitive preacher (Samuel Hagen) can't find parishioners, the housewife (Joanna Horowitz) is driven to distraction by Erwin's persistent yellow mud, the local steam-shovel operator (a wild-haired and wild-eyed Ryan Higgins) drinks his tedium away. The townies need a diversion in the worst way, and the circus needs their bored desperation. They all get what they want at a terrible cost.
Ray Tagavilla, as the elephant trainer, is the show's secret weapon. The bulk of the tragedy hangs on his shoulders and he keeps the pathos tightly reined in, signaling devastating emotions with a tiny pause or a flick of his eyes. Tagavilla is a miraculous physical actor: So controlled and crisply specific, he allows no room to doubt his character. He rejects the presentational razzle-dazzle that rots so many performances, and he's allergic to mugging. His performance as a tic-riddled office worker in Washington Ensemble Theatre's recent production of The Mistakes Madeline Made was a paragon of restraint. Almost any other actor would've turned the character's compulsive gestures into cheap, Seinfeld-style caricature. Tagavilla made them both pitiable and charming. He has only a supporting role in Elephant's Graveyard—but during the play's tragic conclusion, he sits upstage in the dark, quietly weeping while other actors speak into the lights. The audience weeps with him.
The production has flaws: The best actors are understated, just telling their stories, but a few—like Sharon Barto as the kid—stray into a cornball, gee-willikers burlesque of their Podunk characters. And the script contains one pedantic, spell-breaking monologue by the marshal about the awful effects of American willpower.
But the total effect of the production is symphonic in its emotional variations on a tragic theme. Elephant's Graveyard buzzes with truth about the consequences of misunderstanding, the invisible but enormous gap between artists and their audiences, and the infernal beauty of vaudeville. It is the best thing Balagan has ever done.