It’s a short journey between “exotic” and “erotic” in Lynn Nottage’s stunning, sad, sensual “Mlima’s Tale” at Westport Country Playhouse. Riffing on Arthur Schnitzler’s “La Ronde,” in which one sexual encounter leads to another in a never-ending spiral of desire and disease, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Nottage’s play details the sick and deadly journey of a magnificent pair of elephant’s tusks, from Kenyan poachers to a wealthy Chinese consumer.
Everyone gets a cut: warden, police chief, customs agent, dealer. Although “killed” in the first scene, the actor representing the tusks of the beloved African elephant, Mlima, appears in subsequent scenes. Branding profiteers by smearing them with the paint he spread on his body, he leaves the mark of Cain on each of those complicit in the putrescent deed. So empathetic are we while witnessing the murder and the greedy aftermath that we cringe when his tusks are carved into salable commodities.
Through it all, Mlima’s soul lives on, his magnificent tusks haunting transactions. Each scene is also preceded by a cryptic title: “Thunder in not yet rain’’; “A word is like the Delta, it stretches in every direction”; “Don’t think there are no crocodiles because the water is calm,” etc.
For we have here more than the killing and dismemberment of a particular animal. This is also the murder of nature, making a mockery of the pact between Man and God to take care of the earth and its inhabitants. By breaking the Great Chain of Being that interconnects all creatures, we will inevitably end up killing everyone and everything, including ourselves.
“When I was young,” Mlima says at the start “I was taught by my grandmother to listen to the night, really listen, for the rains in the distance, listen to the rustling of the brush, for the cries of friends or foe.” It was “a time of plenty,” before the “drought and the madness.” That pantheistic time has been shattered, is being shattered, by those with guns, with bows and arrows. Instigators and supporters alike are separated from and seeking only to exploit nature. When, finally, we reach the Chinese buyer, her pawing the half-naked Mlima reveals the frustrated sexuality that lurks beneath the desire for money.
Mark Lamos’ subtle direction emphasizes the contrasting worlds of innocent animals and greedy humans. Each realm has its own rules and desires, the conflict bridged by anthropomorphizing Mlima and the pachyderm’s mingling with the humans.
The actors do not always manage the versatility required to portray multiple characters. But Jermaine Rowe is powerful as the noble Mlima, his lithe body and piercing nobility quite dominating the production which also features Jennean Farmer, Adit Dileep and Carl Hendrick Louis.
Claire DeLiso’s scenery, Isabella Byrd’s lighting, Fabian Fidel Aguilar’s costumes, Jeffrey Page’s choreography and Michael Keck’s music are appropriately atmospheric. Yana Birykova’s projections are particularly splendid, ranging from the surreal to gruesome photos of slaughtered elephants.
“Mlima’s Tale” is non-polemically rooted in the depressing idea that we are ensnared by the original sin of greed and selfishness. How else explain man’s cruelty and indifference to fellow creatures?