By JON KAPLAN
It's a strange experience to see the second act of a show without having seen the first. Kind of like getting to a party that's started several hours before; the others are already into their discussions and you have to catch up.
I spent the first four days of SummerWorks catching just about everything at the two Tarragon spaces, so I didn't start on the downtown venues until Monday evening. That meant that I missed all three performances of the first part of The White Bone, Sean Dixon's adaptation of the Barbara Gowdy novel of matriarchal elephant culture, told from the viewpoint of the elephants.
Not having read the novel, I had no background to bring to the staging.
Catching the first performance of the second half on Tuesday meant first that I had to sort out the characters. There's a brief summary of the first part, but with 15 actors, many of them playing several roles, I made some quick deductions about relationships and who was in which group of animals. Then there was the story to pick up. The synopsis in the program helps, but I know it's only a brief version of a richer narrative.
Still, 10 minutes into the piece, I was pretty confident about who the central players were and what their story was thus far. My sense is that Dixon has staged key episodes of the book, that there are more details that he couldn't present in a two-hour show.
At some level, that means you can concentrate on one scene and get something out of it as a theatrical episode, even if the whole tale isn't immediately apparent.
What impressed me most was the physical vocabulary the ensemble company -- most of them students from Humber College Theatre -- developed with Dixon. The elephant movements -- the stomping, the occasional trumpeting or braying, the use of the right hand as a trunk -- were wonderfully evocative. Watch for the simple but eloquent transformation of actors into hawks, or the jittery movements of the mongoose tribe.
There's also the striking moment when an elephant speaks with another animal, a rare trait known as "mind-talking." Dixon's defined it in stage terms by having assistant director Lara Arabian, who stands at the side of the stage, echo the speaker, giving an unearthly quality to the words.
Though the group functions nicely as an ensemble, some performers stand out in terms of the story. I remember Tashieka McTaggart as Mud, the central elephant; Roselie Williamson as the hungry cheetah Me-Me; Joseph Hady as the amorous and dedicated Tall Time; Samantha Hayes as the mind-talking Date Bed; Ted Neal as the young innocent Bent; and Tiffany Martin as the self-centred She-Screams, who claims powers she might not possess.
McTaggart and Martin have had a busy summer. Martin was in the June production of George F. Walker's Tough, and both women performed in the Fringe production The Lesson.
The final two performances of The White Bone run at the Factory Mainspace, Saturday 9:30 pm and Sunday 8 pm.