REVIEW: MAMMOTH: A DE-EXTINCTION LOVE STORY

**SPOILERS**

A gunshot rings out near the end Buran Theatre’s challenging new play, Mammoth: A De-Extinction Love Story, and a mammoth drops dead.

Following that, the shooter approaches the dead creature’s companion (another mammoth) and seeks to justify his actions. He relates to the surviving mammoth, by pointing out he too lost his wife “in a brou-ha-ha…ha…ha,” adding that he “never knows how many ha-ha’s are in a brou-ha-ha-ha…”

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Much like the pre-historic creatures it is named for, Buran’s Mammoth is a majestic work that feels, in its bold transposition of extinction and emotional loss, as though it is not quite of this world. This nuttily meditative play counts a tundra and a scientist’s lab among its settings, but just a few moments in its clear that it has led us into another frame of reference entirely. This is somewhere else. Somewhere a little silly, perhaps, but somewhere fundamental. We’ve taken the rickety elevator all the way down to the ground floor of evolution.

Written and co-directed by Buran Artistic Director Adam R. Burnett, Mammoth is emphatically more mellow than previous Buran work, but it is just as elliptical. Okay, maybe its roughly sketched narratives  are a little more defined than the frenetic doodles found in The House of Fitzcarraldo or Magic Bullets, but on balance they are only intended to be gesture drawings of a part of the human emotional experience. The play opens on a tundra, which is nicely evoked by scenic and lighting designer Nicholas Kostner’s inventive use of a large white piece of fabric. We are introduced to characters called “Beloved,” played by Erin Mallon (who is listed in the program as a co-creator), and “Lover,” played by Starr Busby. They have both been out on this ice for a long time digging for mammoth tusks.

The Lover has trudged across the tundra to confess her love to the Beloved. Though this revelation initially causes some awkwardness, the pair are soon canoodling under the blue/green lights of the aura borealis; a cool visual, spoiled a little by the mechanical sound of the lighting instruments cycling through different colored gels in full view. The dialogue in this sequence and throughout the play is intentionally formal. Playwright Burnett eschews contractions and colloquialisms, having the actors deliver their lines with a kind of dispassionate nostalgia. Sometimes they say exactly what they are feeling and then backpedal – like when the Lover immediately reprimands herself for burdening the Beloved with the knowledge of her love.

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Following the sequence on the tundra, the Beloved finds herself in a lab with two scientists (Tina Shepard and Kristine Haruna Lee) who are trying to use science to create a synthetic mammoth heart. After that, the Beloved and the two scientists are transported to a “tundra in their own back yard,” where they try to enjoy the outdoors while recounting stories, though all three ladies are dressed for drastically different seasons. Finally, the Beloved and the Lover reemerge on the tundra, transformed into mammoths. Costume designer Jennifer Stimple Kamei’s wooly accessories help to stick the landing on this transformation.

All of the play’s scenes are fractured and full of narrative whimsy, which is not always easy to play. Ms. Mallon, Ms. Busby, Ms. Shepard, and Ms. Lee are all tremendous throughout, as is Michael McKim, who eventually plays the hunter. At one point the scientist played by Lee (identified in the script as “Shadow”) uses a blow-dryer to thaw a frozen mammoth tusk. Rather than have the dryer work practically or add a sound cue, Lee simply makes the “hrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrm” noise for it. When it is her turn to speak, she signals to the Beloved, who takes over making the noise.

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Burnett continually entangles ideas of lost love and extinction in potent ways. The Beloved tells the Lover how long it’s been since she found a tusk in the ice and the Lover reacts to it as if she’s talking about how long it’s been since she’s been intimate with someone.  Later the main scientist, played by Tina Shepard, triumphantly reveals the cloned mammoth heart. It’ a sensational moment that is nicely augmented by the grotesque heart puppet designed by Mindy Leanse. But the scientist handles the heart too roughly or keeps it out of its container for too long – it stops beating. Shepard and the other scientist are both deeply sorrowful. Yet Shepard soon starts talking about the last few hearts they lost as though they had been a string of lovers; how each loss feels so monumental but she is always able to move on knowing there will be another. There are always more cloned beating mammoth hearts in the sea, I suppose.

But Burnett’s insights into the emergence of love and the vanishing of species are not meant to encompass the whole of these subjects perfectly. He and co-director Anne Cecelia Haney give you a few linguistic and sensory signposts, but you must ultimately find your own way into the chilly, inscrutable ideas at the core of Mammoth. Like the shadows that the tusk-hunters search for in the subterranean ice, the heart of the play seems to blink in and out of existence. Beating one moment, then silent the next. There’s no one way to get your arms around it.

Burnett includes this quote from mammoth expert Sergey Zimov in the program and script:

Frozen mammoths find you, not the opposite. Directed searches have almost no hope of success.

It’s a beautiful concept that perfectly reflects the experience of seeing this show. A frozen mammoth found me during the gunshot sequence I mentioned, a shadow dug up out from my own ice that had been buried for what feels like a lifetime. This sudden emotional excavation unnerved me in a way I wasn’t prepared for.

The gunshot comes very near the end of the play. As it all played out, the details – the echo of the gunshot, the stunned silence of the other mammoth, the drawn out explanation – were all feeling a little too familiar, like something from a forgotten dream. And then, when the hunter told the surviving mammoth that she should be happy that he hadn’t killed her as well, the mental cylinders suddenly locked into place and a distant memory came into sharp focus.

Parts of the Georgia/Alabama state line are defined by the shape of the Chattahoochee River, a ruddy, rambling mess of Water Moccasins and industrial run-off originating in Atlanta. My hometown of Columbus borders this river on the Georgia side. For the first eighteen years or so of my life, affluence meant whether or not someone’s parents had a “river house,” which side of the river it was on, and how big it was. My parents never had a river house, but I happily spent many summers at friends’ houses riding jet-skis up and down the backwaters until dark.

One such summer, probably about twenty years ago, I was at the very nice river house of a kid who for these purposes I will call “Clyde.” I had known him since kindergarten and around the time we were 10 years old, I went to his river place a lot. It was later in the evening and we were playing something on the 8-bit Nintendo. Legend of Zelda 2, maybe?  I always hated that game.

There were two dogs at Clyde’s river place – a black lab named Eli and another one who I don’t really remember. Anyway, on this night the two dogs started fighting over something outside. I mean, for real dogfight fighting, taking chunks out of each other. I don’t know how, but suddenly Clyde and I were outside on the small bit of yard that ran up to the water’s edge yelling for a grown-up to help. Clyde’s dad emerged from the house with a small handgun. There was only one gunshot but it seemed to echo forever.

After that Eli the black lab was dead. Clyde lost it – I’ve never in my life see a kid go to pieces so completely. Clyde went at his dad, screaming; his mom had to pull him away. Seriously, the balls on this ten-year-old kid. He tried to step to his dad, while he was literally holding a smoking gun.

Me? I was a guest at this place. A tourist. What *the fuck* do you say when you’re ten and you’ve watched your friend’s dad ice the family dog? What is the proper guest etiquette for a situation like that? I clammed up. I was basically a ghost. But… the thing that struck my brain like a pickax in the ice was what Clyde’s dad said to him while they were going back and forth at each other after. Like the hunter at the end of Mammoth, he said that Clyde should be glad that he hadn’t killed both dogs.

As a thirty-three year old man I can look back at the situation with Clyde and the dog and see clearly that I found myself in a pretty messed up situation. As a parent, I can only see the danger. Surely there was something going on with Clyde’s dad that I couldn’t comprehend at the time. Clyde and I weren’t really friends after sixth grade; he fell in with the baggy jeans and shaved heads crowd. I fell in with the theater crowd, so there wasn’t any social construct that would allow for us to continue to be friends. His parents eventually divorced. At this moment I have a pending Facebook friend request from him. I don’t know what I’ll do about that. But I do sometimes wonder if he ever thinks of that sad and scary night on the Chattahoochee.

I am recounting this story here because it was absolutely all I could think about after seeing the show. I have been talking about theater online for a long time and in that time I have learned some pretty good tricks to be sure I address all the designers and talk about performances appropriately. Look, I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t love lumpy paragraphs buried in adjectives and adverbs. But right now I have spent 600 words talking about a dog who died twenty years ago because I think it’s important that we remember the theatrical prime directive: connection. When a thing that happens in front of you on stage summons up a thing that once happened to you in real life and all the affiliated emotions, well, mission accomplished. Looking deeply into the mysteries of a play and accidentally discovering a part of yourself is the whole point of going to see some performative brou-ha-ha-ha in Brooklyn.

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Starr Busby, who plays the Lover, has a spectacular singing voice, which directors Burnett and Haney use to great effect. Here and there throughout the show, Busby sneaks in a few bars of Motown-style vocals during transitions and over certain bits of action. At the very end, she sings a gorgeous a cappella ditty. The lyrics are:

This is only a song about tusks
This is only a song about tusks
This is only a song about tusks.

It’s not about elephants, it’s not about swine
If you don’t like the sound of that, then that is fine.
Well, you can polish your whistle, you can tow the line
Because this is only a song about tusks

It’s not about your woman
It’s not about my man
And it’s not about moving on,
The best that you can
It’s only a song about tusks

This is only a song about tusks
This is only a song about tusks
This is only a song about tusks.

Bowing dark vision, deep in the ice
To draw you out, I have to drawn you in
It’s lonely and sad, but it sure is nice.
Yeah, this is only a song about tusks

This is only a song about tusks
This is only a song about tusks
This is only a song about tusks.

Go find a forest, go climb a tree
Or shackle yourself and never be free
Whatever you do, whatever you’ll be,
it’s all the same to me…la la la la la
This will still only be a song about tusks.

Like the whole show, the song goes to great pains to insist it is about one thing but is actually about another. It isn’t only a song about tusks. It’s about the way we love and how that way can sometimes be broken. It’s about the things we all live with. Regret. Feelings of inadequacy. Our hearts are not broken, as the Lover says at one point, they are incapable.

It isn’t only a song about tusks. And it isn’t only show about mammoths. It’s a show about me. And you. And Clyde and his dad. And Eli the dog. It’s lonely and sad, but it sure is nice.

It’s only a show about us.

Photos by Nicholas Kostner. Mammoth: A De-Extinction Love Story will play at the Brick Theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn through May 23. To purchase tickets visit bricktheater.com

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