The elephant on stage: Matara

Conni Massing’s Matara (until Dec. 9 at the Backstage Theatre) feels like partly the story of Lucy the elephant at the Edmonton zoo, partly the story of the 2015 flood of the Calgary zoo and all exploration of relationships, both human and animal. 

A man and woman stand against a fence speaking seriously
Elinor Holt and Minister Faust in Matara. © Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2018

The show starts simply enough – one of the zoo’s two elephants has died, and the remaining elephant, Matara, is mourning his loss in all the ways that a human might (sleeplessness, loss of appetite, disinterest in activities). Karen (Elinor Holt), her keeper, tries everything she knows to make her feel better and grows increasingly concerned and uncertain about the best path forward as Matara’s health continues to deteriorate. Marcel (Minister Faust), the security guard, keeps watch over the zoo and the river while being unable to work on the thesis he thought this job would enable him to write. And, in comes marketing consultant Romney (Patricia Zentilli) tasked with “fixing the narrative” around the zoo as the protesters demanding Matara be moved to an elephant sanctuary grow louder. 

Matara shows us a side of a zoo most never get to see, no matter how many times one visits. This is the administrative side of the zoo, not the shows and exhibits -what are the marketing decisions, the animal welfare decisions, the funding decisions that go into putting on the spectacle that is the zoo? What is it like to stand guard over animals that are essentially dependent on humans, because of a situation we’ve placed them in? The play meanders slowly around these questions (at times too slowly) but is a worthwhile peek into the less sexy side of zoos and the relationships contained inside those walls.

Matara questions both sides of the conversation around keeping wild animals in zoos. On the one hand, we see the beautiful – two-way- relationship between Matara and Karen. They both clearly care deeply for one another – Matara because Karen is one of her primary caregivers and companions (their relationship dates back 21 years), Karen because she has the same respect and admiration for Matara today as the day she met her as a child. On the other hand, the concerns the protesters have about Matara’s health are certainly justified, and like Karen, I think the play takes the audience on a journey of thinking that the zoo has been Matara’s home for almost her entire life, these humans her companions. Is what’s best for her really to take her away from that, despite the end destination being the Nirvana-sounding elephant sanctuary? Finally, a third aspect – zoos, like all nonprofits, are constantly struggling for the funds to deliver their services in the best way possible, and the best way to get that funding is through donations and tickets – but to get those funds to conserve animals or pay for additional care, you have to show the paying patrons what they want to see – the animals. Is it okay to put these animals on display, if the funds they generate go back into their care? The play doesn’t answer these questions, and it doesn’t stand on a soapbox trying to.

Relationships are at the core of Matara – both the relationship between the humans and Matara and the relationship the humans have with each other.

As we spend time with these characters, Conni Massing’s play gives us the time and space to question the relationship between humans and animals. These relationships are for sure loving and caring in both directions, but the question is posed early in the show, is that enough for both animals and humans to live a satisfying life? Do humans actually need animals more than they need us? 

While I enjoyed reflecting on the animal-human dynamic, I was really drawn more to the relations between the humans. The script poses, but never answers, the question who speaks for Matara, and I loved how that question was reflected back amongst the human relationships on stage where each of the human characters is systematically not heard when they speak. In a lot of ways, Karen’s connection to Matara is not respected, her concerns about Matara’s health are not headed. I get the feeling that Romney never really feels like she’s been ‘seen’, and consequently she always feels like she has something to prove and needs the attention of men to feel like she matters. And most obviously, and heartbreakingly, is Marcel who faces racist stereotypes from those who don’t listen to what he’s saying, who overlook his concerns because he’s ‘just’ a security guard, and who miss out on the signs of the trauma he’s re-experiencing as he copes with his own loss of a family member. As we see the tender care Matara receives as she grieves a death, it’s hard not to think about how callously humans treat each other, in this case with Marcel not receiving any help dealing with his grief.

Conni Massing’s play is full of rich, complex characters. Elinor Holt’s plays Karen as clearly preferring animals to humans, even having no interest in humans. To humans, and even alone, she is cold and distant but totally transforms in the presence of Matara, making it easy to understand how she could have seen Matara as a child and immediately decided to pursue a career and life centred around her. As Marcel, Minister Faust shows us an easygoing, even relaxed, exterior – with cracks of anxiety forming increasingly frequently as his mental health deteriorates and the river rises. Patricia Zentilli’s Romney is easy not to empathize with – she’s brash, dismissive, and over-the-top. But, if you can see past all that, you can see that Patricia has imbued her with an underlying need to prove herself as valuable, and her actions to do that, professionally or personally, start to make sense. Matara features many scenes of all three characters talking at once and, for me, that didn’t quite work as that device almost always creates a sense of anxiety and distraction that doesn’t allow me to focus on the individual narratives. I don’t think this play needed that. The relations between each character’s journey already makes sense, without needing to show those stories in contrast to one another. 

Of course, I can’t wrap up without talking about the elephant at the centre of Matara. Seeing the elephant on stage requires a bit of imagination that is helped along by T. Erin Gruber’s projections and Darrin Hagen and Nick Samoil’s sound design. The richness of these production elements allows the elephant to have a fairly small presence on stage but provides just enough sensory input for the audience’s imagination to fill in the gaps to create not just an elephant on stage, but an entire zoo. Kudos to these designers, whose effects underscore the nearly the whole show.

Matara runs until December 9 at the Backstage Theatre (10330 84 Avenue). Tickets are $20 – $27. Sunday matinees are pay-what-you-can at the door. All tickets (except pay-what-you-can tickets) can be purchased from Tix on the Square.

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