The Elephant and the Whale plot an escape from the circus | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Elephant and the Whale plot an escape from the circus

Cross-species friendship is the key to a heartfelt, all-ages production from Redmoon and Chicago Children's Theatre.



Chicago Children's Theatre's enchanting collaboration with Redmoon isn't necessarily for children—call it a childlike play for adults. While it'll attract the interest of the preteen set, its themes of loyalty, sacrifice, and resignation to the vagaries of fate are decidedly grown-up. I'm not complaining; better to aim slightly above kids than talk down to them.

On its surface, The Elephant and the Whale is a simple fable about an impossible friendship. It's 1919, and the Hoogebeck Family Circus is failing, to the surprise of no one (their "small-to-medium top" features the 11th-best unicyclist in the greater midwest). Shameless huckster Quigley buys the operation and sidelines its star attraction, the acrobatic elephant Ella. When Quigley mistakenly inherits a baby whale, Ella bonds with her fellow oversize captive. They communicate by singing, which Quigley makes the centerpiece of his show—unaware that their songs are elaborate escape plans.

Seth Bockley wrote the silly, heart-wrenching script from a story he conceived with directors Frank Maugeri and Leslie Buxbaum Danzig, who put all manner of low-tech sophistication—stick puppets, toys, masks, projections, scrolling murals—into the hands of the delightfully mishap-prone four-person cast. Bockley and Kevin O'Donnell's forlorn folk score can be cryptic, and the story includes audacious logical gaps. The results may leave your five-year-old perplexed, but they might also amplify his imagination—and yours too.

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