New play by Edmonton's Connie Massing ponders life at the zoo
One benefit to being an internationally recognized theatre town is that Edmonton is home to talented artists who know River City inside out.
So it is with the award-winning Conni Massing, the playwright behind Matara, a 90-minute one-act running at Workshop West’s Backstage Theatre until Sunday. Massing’s play, inspired by Lucy, the long-debated Asian pachyderm at the Valley Zoo, presents a narrative rooted in Edmonton’s natural environment — its smelly spring run-off, its thrilling summer thunderstorms, and the verdant ribbon that snakes through the city, providing a compelling connection to the wild.
Lucy, a resident of the zoo for more than 40 years, has been the subject of worldwide interest, and an ongoing campaign to have her removed to an elephant sanctuary in a warmer climate. Experts have declared that Lucy’s health precludes this voyage.
In Matara, Massing presents the elephant’s story through three characters. One is the sad and isolated Karen (Elinor Holt), Matara’s caretaker who fervently believes she can read Matara’s mind and who insists the mammal is loved and protected at the zoo.
The second is Romney (Patricia Zentilli), a “corporate narrative coach” tasked with organizing a fundraising gala that could use a little push from a big elephant. Marcel (Minister Faust) is a night security guard at the zoo who left Rwanda after family members were killed in the genocide. He is completing a PhD, and juggles a full-time job with the onerous task of developing a thesis.
At the core is Matara herself, created by props designer and builder Randall Fraser, with input by sound designers Darrin Hagen and Nick Samoil. The animal is depicted variously as a trunk, a trunk and wavy ears that are carted about the stage by two of the three actors, and a third iteration — a wire head with eyes, a trunk and ears that perches on a stand.
Before we go any further, let us praise the set, costume, lighting and projection design. T. Erin Gruber creates the magic that is a zoo inside the unglamorous Backstage Theatre (one of my favourite spaces in the city for that very reason. I can’t walk inside without marvelling at the genius that is stagecraft on a budget).
The stage is Matara’s home. It’s a bi-level with bars, with areas for sleeping, eating and minor roaming. High above stage right are umbrellas onto which images, colours, lights and dreams are projected.
The set is stunning, and one of the reasons the play works as well as it does. Gruber puts us in the heart of the river valley at night, the stars piercing a velvet blanket overhead, the steely eye of the zoo’s snowy owl watching our every move. There is rain and lightning, and a waterfall that conjure a mysterious northern jungle, cold and glinting.
The plot of Matara moves toward a triple crisis as the humans deal with their own stuff. Karen is coming unhinged and has taken to sleeping in the animal enclosure. She’s beside herself with concern for Matara’s mental and physical health, and feels she must fend off Romney’s ceaseless demands to have Matara paint pictures for a fundraising auction, or pose for Instagram.
The high-heeled, public-relations whirlwind has her own issues. The zoo has her busting out in a body-wide allergic rash, but she needs this job, and the zoo needs more money. Marcel has fallen behind on his thesis as a tuition payment looms, and he is also worried about rising water levels on the North Saskatchewan River that he believes threaten the zoo. But no one will listen to his concerns.
Backed by director Tracy Carroll and not one, but two, dramatic editors (Carroll and Mukonzi Musyoki), Massing weaves the tale with her customary finesse. She even manages to work the beleaguered Edmonton riverboat into the story as a metaphorical Noah’s Ark, ready to spirit zoo animals away as summer storms threaten the landscape.
Comic writing is Massing’s gift, and she has blessed Romney (in a terrific performance by Zentilli) and Marcel (a charming observer of his new country) with numerous delicately humorous lines. Well-constructed, but for an inexplicable scene in which Zentilli strips down to her animal prints for the horrified Marcel, the play sets us up nicely for a spirited conversation after the show.
But there is something missing. There is no elephant in the room. In the classic, post-play conundrum that is the joy of live theatre, we are left to ponder … was it meant to be that way?
The designers of the beast may have (purposefully or not) contributed to the absence. Suggesting an elephant is a formidable challenge, and I never quite got away from thinking … ‘Oh, look, there is Patricia Zentilli and Minister Faust lumbering about the stage as if they are elephants.’ I was happiest when the smitten Karen (“What is it, my love?’ she asks of Matara) stroked the trunk as it rested over her shoulder.
I don’t expect Massing to get into the head of the elephant; that has the potential to be silly. In some ways, it’s effective that everyone talks around the elephant, reflecting their own priorities. But if the play hopes to have us care about the elephant, it is not successful; I wasn’t able to feel Matara.
Maybe that’s the point. No one can really know what Matara thinks or wants.
NOTE: I enjoyed an innovative extra at Tuesday’s performance of Matara. The half-hour, post-production conversation between Mary-Ann Holm, president of LEAP (Lucy’s Edmonton Advocates’ Project) and University of Alberta professor Colleen St. Clair was enlightening and informative. It was also convenient because I watched it on Facebook Live on the way home in the car.
By the way, Matara is the opener for Workshop West’s 40th season, which includes a Calgary production of last season’s hit, Café Daughter, as well as Canoe, an umbrella for two other festivals, Sound-Off, and Black Arts Matter.
Theatre: Workshop West
Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.
Tickets: 780-477-5955, workshopwest.org