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Review: An Elephant's Ghost Stalks the World in 'Mlima's Tale'

April 16,2018 11:15

Mind you, those figures refer only to what's been wrested from the corpse and is destined to travel the world. I mean the tusks of the mighty Mlima, a legendary elephant struck down by poachers on the savannas of a Kenyan game preserve. Killing him ...and more »

That’s “La Ronde,” Arthur Schnitzler’s presentation of sex as a daisy chain of erotic encounters that crosses the borders of class and money. In that work (widely known among cinephiles for Max Ophüls’s ravishing 1950 film adaptation), one character from each scene becomes a part of the next, giving unsettlingly fleshly resonance to the idea that we’re all connected.
Ms. Nottage makes deft and fleet-footed use of the Schnitzler prototype of overlapping lives. The production traces the movement of Mlima’s tusks from the elephant’s death through their sale and subsequent smuggling out of Kenya until their final, grim apotheosis as an exquisite ivory set in the penthouse of a rich connoisseur.
Each of the people involved in this sequence of plunder and commerce is played by one of three enjoyable, mutable performers. They are Kevin Mambo, Jojo Gonzalez and Ito Aghayere, who keep reincarnating themselves via quick changes of costume (by Jennifer Moeller), stance and accent.
Those portrayed include the Somali poachers who kill Mlima; the corrupt police chief who first sells the tusks and his unwitting nephew, a park warden; a media-savvy Kenyan bureaucrat; a Chinese businessman; a ship captain; and a master ivory carver. Each character, inhabiting a rung on an ascending ladder of power, is very clearly defined but without grotesque caricature.
Such restraint is appropriate, since Ms. Nottage has not set out to create a gallery of predatory villains. All those involved in Mlima’s slaughter and the sale of his tusks have understandable motives for acting as they do.
Ms. Aghayere, left, as Player 3, and Mr. Ngaujah, as an elephant, in this story of murder and its afterlife. Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesSimilarly, even the most seemingly noble among them are ultimately tainted by self-serving motives. It is Ms. Nottage’s point that unconditional virtue is nonexistent within the international system of economic power that keeps the play’s world spinning.
As she demonstrated in her two Pulitzer winners — “Ruined,” about sexual slavery in Congo, and “Sweat,” about blue-collar disaffection in the rust belt of Pennsylvania — Ms. Nottage does deep and conscientious research for her plays. Here, she packs a wealth of cultural, political and economic detail into each scene, from Maasai superstitions to the statistics of the illegal ivory trade.
Yet the facts, figures and folklore never feel jimmied in; the exchange of information among the characters is fluid and always appropriate to the circumstances. If “Mlima’s Tale” is didactic theater, it never comes across as a finger-wagging lecture.
That’s partly because of the arresting visual inventiveness throughout. Riccardo Hernandez’s blank slate of a set is transformed into a globe-circling array of settings by jewel-colored light and shadow (Lap Chi Chu is the whiz of a lighting designer), projected poetic words and saturating, insinuating sound (by Darron L. West, with music written and performed by Justin Hicks).
You’re probably still wondering, though, about Mlima himself and how we are seduced into accepting any actor as a dead elephant. We first see Mr. Ngaujah in stately, trunk-brandishing silhouette against a bright night sky. We hold that initial image in our heads when this figure begins to move, regally and angrily, and to speak in a rich, sensory language of his world and his past as he perceives them.
“If you really listen,” he says, “our entire history is on the wind.” His future, too, becomes elementally pervasive, as Mr. Ngaujah shows up as a living shadow in every subsequent scene. Most disturbingly, we see him alone in the cargo hold of a ship, inevitably summoning thoughts of African people of earlier years abducted into barbaric slavery.
After Mlima’s death, Mr. Ngaujah smears his torso and face with white paint, evoking the ritual body painting of African tribes. That paint has a way of transferring itself, as an emblem of complicity, onto everyone with whom Mlima comes in contact. Don’t be surprised if at the end of this transfixing show, you find yourself checking your own clothes for remnants of the same substance.

Public Theater - Martinson Theater
425 Lafayette St.
E. Village

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Category Off Broadway, Play, Drama
Runtime 1 hr. and 30 min.
Credits Written by Lynn Nottage; Directed by Jo Bonney
Cast Ito Aghayere, Jojo Gonzalez, Kevin Mambo and Sahr Ngaujah
Preview March 27, 2018
Opened April 15, 2018
Closing Date May 20, 2018
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This information was last updated: April 13, 2018

Theater,Public Theater,Nottage Lynn,Mlimas Tale (Play),Bonney Jo,Ngaujah Sahr,Ito Aghayere,Kevin Mambo,Jojo Gonzalez

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