Scenes from a Marriage: “Sacred Elephant”

A one-person show is not a one-person show.

Other artists are always involved — directing, lighting, creating costumes and  set and sound, even writing.

And the artist we see onstage invites yet others — the story’s characters, who appear through his or her body.  When these  characters are many, this can be impressive.

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Jeremy Crutchley

Jeremy Crutchley

Jeremy Crutchley, in his one-person show at the Odyssey, invites only one other character onstage.   But this character’s appearance is impressive indeed.  It’s an elephant.

Stepping with ponderous care on a dusty field of off-white burlap, draped in a heavy overcoat thick with dust, the actor patiently summons the largest of Earth’s land beings.  And before our eyes, the elephant arrives.

Using his body and voice — and Heathcote Williams’ words —  Crutchley introduces this majestic, ancient being.  We begin to see and feel its awesome size, its remarkable intelligence, its peaceful holding of a world — in its mind, in the web of its migrations — where it has walked, invulnerable, for more than two million years.

As he unfolds the wonder of this creature, before whom every human culture has knelt in religious awe, Crutchley weaves a pattern of subtle alteration, slipping from human to elephant and back again.  Both presences are in the room.

We share in the innate human response:  standing  awestruck before this numinous, gentle presence, painting it with our prayers and with powder and pigments, carving its image into our hearts and our houses of worship.

We also must share, inexorably, in the other human response.  Thrust by thrust, we endure a piercing litany of hunting, imprisoning, enslaving and the currently  preferred perversion — wanton murder for a tusk or an organ, leaving piled-up carcasses we pretend are “elephant graveyards.”

All the while, however, Crutchley is also guiding us deeper and deeper into elephant’s experience.  We begin to feel the emotional life of beings who sense one another’s presence 10 miles away (and recognize a loved one after 30 years apart), who pet and caress each other constantly, who tend one another through the pangs of birth and illness and loss, who mourn inconsolably at another’s death, who guard and inter the cherished body (carrying away the tusks for a final, secret rite).  Who can include trusted humans as family.

As a result — even while we wince and weep at what we have done — we remain in the numinous presence of a mystery.  The animal, the being with soul (among whom we, too, are numbered).  The greatest among us who go upon the land, and the oldest of the Old Ones of the Earth.

Many a theatrical performance recounts an intense relationship;  the best of these tell the story from both points of view, honoring both experiences.  Usually, such a tale involves two humans.  Sacred Elephant takes us into the long marriage between the two species who dominate the Earth.  And it prods us gently, but with restrained power — like a trunk softly nudging a human shoulder — asking us how we wish to proceed.

Jeremy Crutchley’s work in this piece is astonishing, as he manages with the simplest of means to evoke the elephant as a living, felt presence.  At the heart of his achievement, surprisingly, is humility — the essence of elephant’s way in the world, and the virtue we humans must work hardest to find and hold.  Our guide rises from the dust, walks in it, and is covered with it.  His awe is palpable, and his authority is subtly magnified by the gentleness of his assertion; his withheld power releases fully only in elephant’s crises of terror and mourning.

Director Geoffrey Hyland’s work is everywhere yet invisible, the signature of a true collaborative artist.  With two exceptions.  Hyland is responsible for the stunningly simple, evocative set; its silence speaks, movingly. And he designed the sound, a hushed river of wilderness sounds and human music.

Ilka Louw’s brilliant, quiet costume is of a piece with the set, as if snipped and sewn from it, an animal’s skin woven of Earth.  And the lighting (by Luke Ellenbogen and Maria Maria Viterelli) leads us about the space with the actor, in and out of the emotional places he finds.

Williams’ poetic text seems at first to wander, but slowly sews together a vision.   Like elephant growing a mental image of the wide lands it tends and meanders through.

Together, these artists create a shamanic exploration of a mystery. They weave a spell that never falters, at last bringing us to a hilltop of enlightenment (complete with the shared pain of another’s suffering, and our own responsibility).

In this crucial era of Earth’s history, the greatest lesson before the human race is habitat sharing — how to live among our fellow Earthlings.  Sacred Elephant addresses that lesson, not lecturing, but letting us learn to love another ensouled being.

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Sacred Elephant, by Heathcote Williams, adapted by Jeremy Crutchley and Geoffrey Hyland; directed by Geoffrey Hyland.
Presented by SheerNerve Productions at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 2:00, through August 17th.

Tickets:  <http://www.sacredelephantplay.com> or (310) 477-2055