Stage Door Review

Jumbo

Sunday, June 16, 2019

✭✭✭✩

by Sean Dixon, directed by Gil Garratt

Blyth Festival, Memorial Auditorium, Blyth

June 14-August 10, 2019

P.T. Barnum: “The wonders of the ages assembled for your edification, education and enjoyment – for a price"

With Jumbo by Sean Dixon, the Blyth Festival is presenting the most technically complex work it has ever staged in the Memorial Hall. To give a taste of “The Greatest Show on Earth”, the circus led by P.T. Barnum (1810-91), and its star attraction, the African elephant Jumbo, the production directed by Gil Garratt combines theatre, circus arts and puppetry. Likely due to its complex nature, the show probably ought have been allocated a longer rehearsal period because when I saw it the day after its world premiere on June 14, the show still felt under-rehearsed. Transitions between scenes were clunky, performances were sometimes halting and the action did not have the overall polish and snappy pacing characteristic of other shows at the Blyth Festival such as The Pigeon King (2017). 

The Blyth Festival specializes in Canadian plays on Canadian topics and many may not know what the connection of Barnum and Jumbo is to Canada. For most North Americans, Jumbo was the first African elephant any had ever seen, so if P.T. Barnum claimed Jumbo was the largest elephant in the world, they believed him. Jumbo’s death thus meant the death of the greatest symbol of animal life on earth. It so happens that Jumbo met his demise on September 15, 1885, in the Grand Trunk Railways’s main marshalling yard in St. Thomas, Ontario, a city 200 kilometres southwest of Toronto. The circus had finished its show in St. Thomas and the animals were being led to their rail cars, when an unscheduled freight train roared down the track and mortally wounded Jumbo who died on the spot.

One might not think that the accidental death of an elephant would be the most likely source for a play, but Dixon has imagined a structure of interweaving stories that expand upon the importance of Jumbo in life and after his death. In Act 1 we meet Barnum himself (Gil Garratt standing in for the indisposed Don Nicholson); a fictional barber “Shack” Martin (Peter Bailey) trying to give Barnum a haircut; Matthew Scott (1834-?) (Tony Munch), Jumbo’s keeper for 20 years; Nala Damajanti (1861-?) (Julie Tamiko Manning), a female snake charmer; Annie Jones (1865-1902) (Lucy Meanwell), the Bearded Lady; a unicyclist (Tiffany Martin); Charles Tripp (1855-1930) (Michael McManus), Barnum’s armless manager in Canada; and Juan A Caicedo (1861-1920) (Mark Segal), the circus’s chief aerialist.

As petty disputes rage among the circus artists we see glimpses of a circus performance including clowns (Peter Bailey and Kurtis Leon Baker), acts of the artists mentioned and climaxing with the appearance of the miniature elephant Tom Thumb and the giant elephant Jumbo, a puppet taking up a fourth of the acting area of the stage and beautifully designed by Gemma James-Smith. The Act concludes with a clever and artfully imagined recreation of Jumbo’s death.

Act 2 focusses on the aftermath of Jumbo’s death. What plans will Barnum have for the biggest draw at his circus? Should he be buried and, if so, where? Should he be butchered for meat? Should he be preserved somehow for science? 

Of the two acts, Act 1 is much more satisfying than Act 2 largely because of its re-creation of a circus atmosphere and the presence of P.T. Barnum, who begins Act 2 but strangely disappears thereafter. In Act 2 the characters are allowed to reflect on their time with Jumbo, especially Matthew Scott, who knew Jumbo longer and better than anyone and in fact wrote a book about being Jumbo’s keeper in 1885 before Jumbo died. Yet, it turns out that there is more pertinent information about Jumbo in the display about him by the Elgin County Museum in the refreshment hall than there is in the play. 

Some of Dixon’s imagined subplots are not especially interesting. When Juan A Caicedo takes over from Barnum as ringmaster, his disdain for his fellow artists causes a revolt. Dixon has “Shack” Martin happen to be freighthopping the very train that kills Jumbo and then suffers amnesia after the accident, believing that the U.S. Civil War is still ongoing. Dixon pointlessly satirizes the overzealousness of Henry Augustus Ward (1834-1906), here restyled as Henrietta Ward (Tiffany Martin), a taxidermist and naturalist, but does not mention that he did preserve, stuff and mount Jumbo’s skin that was on display at Tufts University until 1975. These incidents help fill out the play but don’t contribute to our knowledge of its main topic.

One odd aspect of Act 2 is that although Dixon begins with Barnum’s plans to attempt to make Jumbo as famous in death as in life, Dixon never follows up this theme. We hear how Barnum thinks that with an exhibition of Jumbo’s skeleton and with an exhibition of his taxidermied hide that, opportunist as he is, he will now have two Jumbos to use to make money. 

What Dixon doesn’t emphasize is the myth that Barnum made up about Jumbo’s death. St. Thomasonians even today will tell you that Jumbo died because he saw that the miniature elephant Tom Thumb was in the path of an oncoming train and sacrificed his life to save Tom’s. Dixon has a scene where one person (Tiffany Martin) is trying to tell this story to reporters but is shouted down by another person (Julie Tamiko Manning) who is trying to sell an elixir made from Jumbo’s ivory. 

By not focussing on this story, Dixon misses the parallel between Barnum’s myth-making about Jumbo when he was alive as well as his myth-making when Jumbo was dead. Jumbo was an ordinary size for a male African elephant, but since almost all of those who paid to see him had never seen an elephant before Barnum could claim Jumbo was the largest elephant in the world. Similarly, since few people actually witnessed Jumbo’s death but many knew Tom Thumb survived, Barnum could attribute altruism to Jumbo and thus make people wish to pay homage even to his remains. 

Another flaw in Dixon’s play is that there is not much cohesion in the storytelling. Garratt as director has actors put cards on easels on either side of the stage notifying us to changes in time and place as if the form of the play were a 19th-century-style melodrama. Yet, that is not the form that Dixon has followed. He provides a whole range of scenes – some dealing with the company, some with Jumbo, some with the St. Thomasonians – but all interleaved in no detectable pattern. The most engaging scenes are those of Matthew Scott describing Jumbo’s background and his relationship with the animal over the course of 20 years. 

This makes one think that Dixon might well have used Scott’s autobiography as his guide and let Scott serve as narrator to the events. A narrator would give the show a more solid throughline and would help obviate all the blackouts used for the many scene changes that become tedious very quickly. 

Since Dixon’s dialogue is not particularly witty, it happens that the most memorable scenes in the play are those without words. In the most moving of these Scott simply gives Jumbo a wash. The excellence of the puppeteers, including Tony Munch, who manipulates the trunk, coupled with the sounds recorded by Deanna H. Choi, gives us an unforgettable image of the simple pleasure enjoyed by Jumbo and his longtime keeper and says more about the trust and love the two creatures have for each other than any words could do.

Gil Garratt is so impressive as Barnum that it is too bad Dixon has his character disappear so early in Act 2. Garratt plays him as a consummate businessman and huckster who, unlike Arlan Galbraith whom he played in The Pigeon King, is completely and even proudly aware that he exploits the general public’s credulity to his own advantage. Barnum is a more complex character than Dixon depicts him – a man who was a passionate abolitionist and yet one who saw nothing wrong with collecting and displaying freaks of nature, human or animal, to a paying public. Garratt also plays a local farmer in St. Thomas who initially doesn’t want to let the circus use and potentially destroy his land until he finds the rental fee is right.

Tony Munch is excellent as Matthew Scott, the man with the closest personal link to Jumbo. The simple way Munch has Scott express his admiration for the animal and the deep depression that Jumbo’s death plunges him into are the principal emotional markers of the play.

Peter Bailey gives a multifaceted performance first as a “Shack” Martin, the barber who comically can hardly go about his work on Barnum because Barnum can’t stop moving when he speaks, second as one member of a clown duo. We have already heard that Martin is a “dingbat”, hobo slang for someone who illegally rides trains as his main means of travel. Yet it is rather too contrived to find him travelling on the freight train that kills Jumbo. We are even more surprised to find that the shock of the accident has cast Martin’s mind back to the time of the U.S. Civil War. No matter how convincingly Bailey performs the role, its purpose is unclear. If Dixon is trying to compare the exploitation of Jumbo to slavery, it’s not a very wise decision and comes off as a digression from the main story. 

Mark Segal plays the most aggressive member of the circus troupe, the aerialist Juan A Caicedo. The real Caicedo was a slack wire artist and was known as “The King of the Slack Wire”. Segal, in contrast, is aerial acrobat specializing in corde lisse, a specially made thick, smooth rope of cotton. Segal not only performs his acrobatics from a cord suspended over the stage but also one hanging from the ceiling of the Memorial Hall over a space house left of the stage to give Segal a cord of a usual length. His act, involving all manner of complex poses and knots, is the undoubted highlight of the circus-within-a-play in Act 1.

As Caicedo, Segal adopts such a heavy but authentic Spanish accent, that some may find him difficult to understand. Nevertheless, the character’s hauteur and disdain for his fellow performers comes through quite clearly. When he plays Debous the Butcher, he completely drops the accent and become simply a local St. Thomasonian looking for the biggest butchering job of his life. 

As Charles Tripp, the so-called “Armless Wonder”, Michael McManus conveys all the elegance that historical accounts tell was associated with the character. If designer Eric Bunnell has given McManus a looser formal jacket, McManus could have portrayed Tripp’s armlessness even more convincingly.

Nala Damajanti, the female snake charmer, is the other elegant member of the troupe and Julie Tamiko Manning plays her with an incontrovertible sense of self-worth that sets her apart from the other performers much as Caicedo sets himself apart from them. The separateness of Manning’s character, however, in contrast to Segal’s, derives from her inward focus not from her outward dispraise. Manning manipulates the puppet used as her snakes in such a realistic manner that you easily forget that it is a puppet.

Dixon has Annie Jones, the bearded lady, serves as the voice of reason and compassion throughout the play. Lucy Meanwell does convey these sentiments but tends to speak all her lines with the same intonation no matter what the situation so that her performance is not as compelling as it could be.

In other roles, Tiffany Martin dutifully presents “Henrietta” ward as the caricature of a mad taxidermist that Dixon has created and Kurtis Leon Baker well plays the mild, innocent Butcher’s Boy as well as crucially serving as the main puppeteer for Jumbo’s head. 

For many the main star of the show will be the huge puppet of Jumbo created by Gemma James-Smith and manipulated with such sensitivity by the cast. Blyth has certainly never seen anything like this and it certainly pushes open boundaries of what kinds of shows Blyth can present in future. We can tell what ordinary materials were used to create Jumbo and we can see the people as they manipulate him, yet, as happens with puppets when they are manipulated with such care, we soon cease to regard Jumbo as a puppet and respond to him as a character. Because the puppet of Jumbo was so effective in Act 1, I was disappointed that Dixon saw no way to have him reappear in Act 2, if only as a memory of a noble exploited beast whose name has now passed into common usage. 

While the scene changes in Jumbo will undoubtedly become smoother throughout the run, Dixon’s play will still seem more like an early draft of a play about Jumbo than a finished work. Dixon needs to tells us more clearly about how Barnum took advantage of Jumbo and of the credulity of the general public. Both cases involve an abuse of innocence that Dixon could more forcefully set forth. Similarly, Dixon needs to make more of the myth-making surrounding Jumbo in life and death that made of an ordinary African elephant a creature whose name everyone knows even if they don’t know its origin. 

The circus-within-a-play so expertly managed by Manon Beaudoin and the masterful use of puppetry have certainly expanded the means that Blyth can use in presenting works for the stage. We have to applaud the Blyth Festival for taking on such a technically daring, boundary-breaking play and we look forward to the possibilities this work opens up in the future.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: Jumbo, Tony Munch as Matthew Scott and Lucy Meanwell as Annie Jones; Gil Garratt as P.T. Barnum; Tiffany Martin as Clown, Lucy Meanwell as Annie Jones, Gil Garratt as P.T. Barnum, Julie Tamiko Manning as Nala Damajanti, Kurtis Leon Baker as Clown,Tony Munch as Matthew Scott and Mark Segal as Juan A Caicedo. © 2019 Terry Manzo.

For tickets, visit blythfestival.com.