Scene: the Sakha Republic, Siberia. Some time in the future, a genetically engineered mammelephant (half mammoth, half elephant) has an existential crisis in a man-made park created to solve climate change.
That's more or less the entire plot of Lanxing Fu's Mammelephant: produced by Superhero Clubhouse and directed by Nana Dakin at 122CC. While it raises important questions and contains many beautiful moments, ultimately, it lacks the forward momentum needed to turn a nice, well-meaning production into a truly great one.
But there's much to love, so we'll start there. Performer Zhanna Zakharova opens the musical by telling us about her homeland: the Republic of Sakha in Northeastern Russia. Her people have lived there for thousands of years, but the permafrost (a permanently frozen layer of soil, gravel, and sand) on which Sakha's people have built their homes is melting, causing houses to sink and making the region potentially unsafe. With the audience seated on three sides of the carpeted floor space used as a stage, it feels as though we've been invited to a cozy, warmly lit house for an evening of intimate storytelling.
As an added treat, the production team has whipped up a few spots of magic for us. For one, there's a rolling paper theatre used to whimsical storytelling effect. We also get treated to a Zoom call with Zakharova's mother, which, though clearly contrived, is a tender touch and nicely pulled off. As this is a story rooted in the environment, all the set and costume pieces are made from recycled materials, also a nice touch.
The actors double as musicians, and their instruments and voices blend in hauntingly beautiful ways, reminiscent of desolate wastes of ice and fabulous creatures lost to time. I'd be remiss if I didn't add performer Jen Anaya to the number of lovely things about this production. Particularly funny as a big-horned sheep, her grass-eating antics and preoccupation with being shot bring much-needed comedy to a show that sometimes takes itself too seriously.
Unfortunately, even an astounding number of good qualities can't save a show that, at its heart, features a moody mammelephant whining about the inherent unfairness of its existence. Unfair it may be, but after a while, even highly merited whining starts to feel old. While some character growth does occur, it seems to take an ice age to achieve even that, and much of the play feels like a screaming match between the mammelephant and Nicki, the scientist in charge of the experiment known as Pleistocene Park.
There's a lovely segment in the middle where the mammelephant's friends tell the story of humanity in relation to mammoths and elephants. We meet ancient peoples who may be brave and strong but joke about sex and death. The language is gorgeously restrained, the acting beautifully subtle. I wish Mammelephant had leaned more into these strengths, rather than digressing into what feels like an angry, directionless rant. Perhaps then it could have been a truly mammoth production.
'Mammelephant' runs July 21 through August 6 at 122CC, Second Floor Theater (150 First Ave). For tickets and more info, see the link below: