So the Dresser, being bored with the music selection during a big dance party at a fabulous house in DC's Rock Creek Park this holiday season, asked her friend Victoria, what was the elephant deal? OK, here's what the two of them knew going in--the University of Maryland commissioned 500 Clown to do a new work. The work would be developed with selected students during a 500 Clown residency at the University. On December 14, the last day of 500 Clown and the Elephant Deal, the Dresser and her friend Victoria showed up at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center Kogod Theatre and in an effort to stay out of the action of the play, the Dresser carefully selected seats, knowing from having seen 500 Clown Macbeth not to sit up front or on the aisle.
NEW OR OLD?
In the director's note of the playbill, Leslie Buxbaum Danzig confesses that back in 2006, her group started working with composer/lyricist John Fournier on an idea to adapt Bertolt Brecht's play Mann Ist Mann (A Man's a Man) during a three-year residency at University of Chicago and this is how 500 Clown and the Elephant Deal at the University of Maryland got started. In Brecht's play, one of the characters asks, what is an elephant compared to a man?
Now, what about the elephant deal? OK, the Dresser isn't there yet, just like she wasn't one with the Cajun/zydeco selections at the holiday party. Here is what she knows about A Man's a Man. This comic play about a naïve man who is made into a killing machine premiered in 1926, but between 1924 and 1938, Brecht rewrote the piece at least ten times. One part of the play became a one-act surreal farce called The Elephant Calf. In The Elephant Calf, the naïve man whose name is Gayly Gay is a baby elephant accused of murdering his mother.
LOOKING FOR A PATSY
Are we there yet--the elephant deal? And why didn't the Dresser ask the hosts of the dance party to play more swing which is what she prefers? Dance etiquette says a dancer needs to shut up and follow; therefore she enjoyed the art on the walls and the pick-up live jamming of folk tunes being done in a backroom of the house. Now here's a sketch of what took place on December 14. Like 500 Clown Macbeth, the first order of business was for the players to interact with the audience and make late-arrivers to 500 Clown and the Elephant Deal part of the show. And this was pretty intimidating because the three players starting the show were dressed in army fatigues and like the opening of A Man's a Man, the soldiers were looking for a patsy.
MORE BUST PLEASE
The next scene (and mind you, all of this show is fluid with no intermission, no set changes, and no pause between scenes) brought Madam Barker (played by 500 Clown Molly Brennan) climbing into the audience from the back of the house (this happened in 500 Clown Macbeth too). She set up the play and acted as a middleman between the soldiers and the musicians who were at the back of the staging area. The setting is East Berlin, this is her cabaret, and she confesses to having done "some terrible things."
The Madam also asked the audience to invoke their imaginations to provide what might be missing, like the chair she planned to sit on. So while she went on about the missing chair, the soldiers scrambled in the darkened theater and plunked down a chair to the great "surprise" of Mme Barker who thanked the audience for their powers of imagination that had "moved matter" and then the madame pulled on the bodice of her blouse and said, "Now do my tits." (Bada bing! Ah, the burlesque!)
ALL THE ROADS TAKEN
A series of songs, some of them smooth jazz, some of them tango, some of them rock, ensued from this point including one that is about an elephant deal. Name-dropping--Myrna Loy, Oscar Wilde, Mack the Knife--happens. Quotations from known literary works occur--for example, from Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken" came the line "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood." And most importantly a patsy though not really a Gayly Gay (played by 500 clown Adrian Danzig) is found in the audience and his girl friend is dragged into the action of the play.
Eventually the music morphed from delicious original to stolen (shh, don't tell anyone!)--there are riffs on the samba song "Brazil" and "Jumping Jack Flash" (remind the Dresser some time to tell you how in Prague through her bedroom window, the Rolling Stones serenaded her with this song). The Dresser also was reminded of game playing by Cocky and Sir in The Roar of Grease Paint, the Smell of the Crowd--why? Because the rules of the game changed or a new game was called when the alpha male started to lose.
HOWLING AT MY MOM IN THE DRIVING RAIN
What the Dresser liked best about 500 Clown and the Elephant Deal was the clever song lyrics (how about "The Ax of Life" or "I'm So Sorry, Mom"), the way Mme Barker could belt out a song, the movements of the big-eyed girlfriend of the patsy (played by Tzveta Kassabova), the spotlight made out of a series of nested paint buckets, and the talkback session with the cast after the action of the play finished. Process is what 500 Clown is all about and that is what the Dresser loves. What the Dresser felt was missing was the thrilling circus moves done on the gymnasium bars. Well, the show is still a work in progress, so the Dresser is sure things will change in the next production.
And by the way, while Victoria thinks the elephant deal might be something whacky, the Dresser believes it involved death-by-falling in a big pachyderm thud from the gymnasium bars by the soldier called Skip (played by founding 500 Clown performer Paul Kalina and "didn't that hurt" someone asked the post-show dazed-looking Kalina in the talk back) and so the Dresser, despite some interesting characters like the Cajun bozo wearing lime green pants, a pale red shirt, black leather jacket, and black bucket hat, left the party at 1 a.m., having waded through twelve inches of coats thrown down on the coat closet floor to grab her still-hanging wrap (well, actually her husband did, the Dresser thinking he had less scruples about walking on the carelessly placed coats) and she didn't stick around to hear what the music was like later though she told Victoria if a woman with a green violin showed up to play live zydeco she would have stayed and maybe even danced.
The Dresser thinks there should be more to Madam Barker's story and so ends this ramble with a poem from Cass Dalglish's Humming the Blues, a collection of poems inspired by Nin-meSar-ra, Enheduanna's Song to Inanna.
THEN THE MUSIC ENDS
and I'm left alone in the dark, whispering my songs like a bird in the night.
I'm Enheduanna, I'm your priest. I'm your poet, but tell me, Innanna, am I sacred
or am I taboo? I've fallen into the hands of shadows, and as a smoldering south
wind blows cinders through the strings of my harp, smoky shapes rub dust
on my cheeks and cover my mouth, my song, my wild honey blessings. I try
to call to you, "Where is my voice?" But my mouth tangles your chants,
it twists your blessings. I try again, "Sister, do I pray? Sister, do I surrender?
Where is my voice? Where are my sweet words, the happiness I had in the
mountain crocus? My saffron satisfaction?
By Cass Dalglish
from Humming the Blues
Copyright © 2008 Cass Dalglish