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8/19/2023          AANIKA’S ELEPHANTS                   Center for Puppetry Arts



Aanika tells us she’s an elephant.


Sure, to us she seems like a normal young African woman, vibrant and cheerful.  But as she talks to us, out of the darkness comes a trunk, a leg, ears, all the familiar accoutrement of pachydermiosity.  It is a magical moment that ushers us into this magical tale of love and survival.


No, Aanika is not REALLY an elephant (perhaps).  She was raised on a preserve, a haven for orphan elephants (orphaned by the incursion of ivory poachers).  One day, an injured baby elephant is brought in, a baby for whom the adults have given up all hopes of rescuing.  But Aanika believes in the baby and helps to nurse her back to health.  She names the baby “Little” because Aanika is bright and the elephant is, indeed, small (for now).


But life has a way of making things an adventure.  Aanika is herself orphaned  and put in the care of an uncaring uncle.  She runs off with Little, and soon they are facing the dangers of the “bush” – snakes and lions and other elephants.  And, of course, the dreaded poachers.


This is a fast-paced and beautifully written tale aimed at older grade schoolers – yes there is the death of a parent and real danger for Aanika and Little (not to mention talk of poo and eating of bugs).  But it is also a compellingly memorable experience for us older folk, a portrait of a dynamic young character who is indeed the equal of challenges that would daunt even the most experienced among us.  It also provides a tasty little lesson about living with the natural world, about recognizing the “person” within the creatures with whom we share the world.

It is constructed as if an adult (or at least an older) Aanika is telling us this story, so it is filtered through memory – the puppets are more suggestions of people and animals (the “adult” humans are played by puppets) rather than realistic representations.  The black-garbed puppeteers are in full view – a device as old as puppeteering itself – and all the more effective for that.   None of the young people at today’s matinee has any problems accepting the puppets as real, a tribute to both the skill of the cast and the fertile imaginations of their young audience. 


This show is anchored by a remarkable performance by Jimmica Collins (*) who is an energetic ray of sunshine with a smile broad enough to brighten the darkest winter night and an optimistic outlook that brooks no challenge.  Since she is our storyteller, she has virtually all the African-accented dialogue and is on stage for the entire 70+ minutes of the show. 


I love so many of the concepts written into this script by Annie Evans, concepts embraced and enhanced by director Pam Arciero and her design team (Martin P. Robinson and Jessica Iwaszkiewicz).  The elephants (and other creatures) are all made with natural materials (rattan and rope) and even some props are more suggestive than realistic (tree branches are the guns of the poachers, for example).  At one point an elephant family comes out into the audience, providing a delightful moment of interaction with the audience, making me regret sitting so far from the aisles. 


The puppeteers here are all ginormous (dare I say “elephantine?”)  talents and deserve kudos all around:  Latoryah Alexander, Bradley Freeman Jr, Jean Marie Keevins, Jared Brodie, Cedwan Hooks, Reay Maxwell, with understudies Arianna Hardaway and Amy Sweeney perhaps hidden unannounced beneath the black costumes.  It is a tight ensemble, both as puppeteers and as characters.


I love that, at root, this play is all about story – Aanika is a storyteller, and she interacts with everyone through story, through empathy, through a devout love of everything alive – even creatures that want nothing more than to kill her or take her teeth.


Aanika’s Elephants is a delightful show and it made me regret that I waited this long to visit the Center for Puppetry Arts.  This is theatre perhaps aimed at the young (and young at heart), but it is no less enchanting to grizzled old Papa Elephants like me.


So, yes, I BELIEVE that Aanika is an elephant.


I just may be one too.


     --  Brad Rudy   (   #CenterForPuppetryArts   #AanikasElephants)


( * )  Bias Alert – I’ve known Ms. Collins for more than a few years and worked with her on a production out in the exurbs, so I am inclined to view her work through Approval-Tinted glasses.  That being said, this is a truly memorable and compelling performance!


Note – it is rumored (perhaps confirmed) that this production will move to Broadway in 2024.  Good Luck on that endeavor to this cast and crew!

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