‘Elephant’ Invades Both the Infinite and Society
Inaugural Production Mirrors Ongoing World EventsBy Chikako Sassa
The Elephant, Your Majesty
Written by Sa'dallah Wannous
Translated by Hessah Munif and Basel Y. Al-Naffouri G
Directed by James Dai G
Buildings 7 and 10
May 24 and 25, 6:30 p.m.
Question: How do you put an elephant in the Infinite Corridor in three steps? Answer: The director and producer plan for two months, the cast and crew rehearse for four days and nights, and you amble along the corridor between Lobbies 7 and 10 and watch for 30 minutes as members of MIT FIN, a new group devoted to bringing art with Islamic origins to campus, draw you into a world where a tyrannical king’s pampered pachyderm threatens to come crush you like an egg at any minute.
The workshop production of “The Elephant, Your Majesty” carved out a creative space for itself from the humdrum architecture of everyday life, instilling newfound wonder and appreciation for the marbled chambers of MIT. I felt like a member of one of those truckloads of innocuous Asian tourists. For the roughly 30 to 40 audience members each evening, the colossal columns in Lobby 7 took on an uncanny resemblance to elephant feet, with wailing women hiding behind porticos. Orange confetti-bearing elephants and blasts of elephantine trumpeting heralded the event to unsuspecting passersbys.
A plot too intricately contrived would have easily succumbed to the unheeding chaos of life. Luckily the open-endedness of the script -- rough-hewn by design -- and the spontaneous blocking it encouraged negotiated well the boundary between performative and public domains. The play produced a somewhat edgy attitude of self-defense as the actors and audience members alike struggled to define our boundaries and dispel confusion.
The first few minutes of “The Elephant, Your Majesty” was mired in confusion, partly because the acoustics along the Infinite Corridor muddled dialogues and partly because the text faithfully replicated the frustrating sluggishness with which real-to-life human interactions occur. Blood and destruction abounded in exalted exchanges between discombobulated townspeople -- the pious, fearful, and risk-averse everymen and everywomen were referred to by numbers in the script. They spat out the word “elephant” like poison because one such animal -- the king’s malicious pet -- has just crushed a child to death. Just as often, the word “God” is invoked to rationalize this tragedy as a twist of fate. Disturbing descriptions of spilled guts and shattered human remains echoed too graphically the fatalities of war and despotic regimes in our world today.
As our mental image of elephants as benign giants is warped into that of a raging, injurious behemoth, we learn that the true elephant in the room is the king. The plot crawls with excruciating languidity until Zakaria (Aaron P. Moronez ’04) -- the only man with a name and the strength to speak up -- climbs onto a pedestal in Lobby 7 and declares that they go and beg their king to restrain his elephant. After much quibbling and rehearsing of their complaint, the people appear at the Palace Gates and are led into Lobby 10 where the king “appears” as a sonic terror, raining down on the crestfallen heads of his helpless subjects with contempt and patronization. Michael Ouellette’s bitter interpretation of a deep-seated royal, jaded by luxurious crapulence and his power to flog, brought about a quick and merciless climax. The desperate negotiation ends an utter defeat as the king proclaims royal decrees to bring about more elephants.
Through its inaugural production, MIT FIN has sought to raise awareness among the MIT community of creative works rooted in Islamic and Arabic traditions. “The Elephant, Your Majesty” was cherry-picked from notable contemporary Arab plays. It was translated from Arabic into English by Basel Al-Naffouri G -- with the help of his mother -- and tailored according to the particular constraints and opportunities of MIT by Al-Naffouri and James Dai G. The resulting script, unique to this production, proved somewhat lackluster and verbose at times, but the producer’s intent to question tyranny in the face of ongoing strife in Iraq could not have been more timely.
The directorial vision, which outfitted a kingdom inside the lobbies and hallways of Building 7 and 10, deserves equal praise, as well as the group’s successful effort to meld the use of digital media with decidedly more time-tested histrionics -- confetti, processional theatre, and emphasis on the use of the actors’ bodies as a way to convey emotions and thoughts.
Woe to you if you missed “The Elephant.” But considering the apocalyptic conclusion of the play and the emergence of MIT FIN as a new assemblage of creative minds, we just might be accosted by many more elephants to come. “Our tale is just the beginning.”