Arts Feature

Homage to a Fallen Elephant

Experimental Puppet Duo at Conundrum on Wednesday

By Rachel Kuhnle
Wednesday, June 26, 2013
Tonight A Clown Will Travel Time
Tonight A Clown Will Travel Time. Courtesy photo

It’s really quite simple what brings puppeteer duo Murphi Cook and Zach Dorn, under the name Miniature Curiosa, to Conundrum Music Hall tonight (Wednesday) at 8 p.m. — elephant-sized justice.

In 1916, the people of two towns in Tennessee, Kingsport and Erwin, gathered at the Clinchfield Railroad yard for the hanging of Mary, a five-ton circus elephant billed as “the Largest Living Land Animal on Earth.” The pachyderm was set to die for trampling her recently hired and wildly unqualified trainer, a former hotel worker named Red Eldridge. Reports say the attack was witnessed by a large number of people who chanted, “Kill the elephant!”

Circus owner Charlie Sparks helped to arrange the hanging after the leaders of several nearby towns refused to permit the circus to visit were the rogue Mary included. The bizarre execution was attended by between 2,500 and 5,000 people, according to different accounts. Some reports say an announcement was made at the circus matinee performance that those in attendance were invited to the hanging at no extra cost.

Sensationalized eyewitness accounts have cemented the story into American folklore, and it has become a source of inspiration for a number of plays and songs as a cautionary tale against everything from vigilante justice to mob mentality to animal cruelty.

The Pittsburgh-based Cook and Dorn — who prefer to call their performances “spectacles” and themselves “spectacle makers” — are touring their tribute to Big Mary, Tonight A Clown Will Travel Time. In their version of events, character Albert Billows, portrayed by Dorn, escapes to the past in an attempt to stop the hanging. Columbia is stop number six on a 15-stop tour.

Their visit will also mark a homecoming for Cook, who was born in Columbia.

“The title of the show probably sounds a little silly, but I would definitely say it has a dark side,” says Cook, who, at 26, recently graduated from Carnegie Mellon with a Master of Fine Arts degree in playwriting. “We like things that feel like Pee-Wee’s Playhouse meets the spooky monsters you imagined dancing across your childhood walls.”

Cook and Dorn met in a playwriting class at the University of Connecticut where, according to Cook, “We were both making the strangest plays.”

The duo perform with support from local puppet two-some Kimi Maeda and Lyon Hill, who make up Belle et Bete, known around Columbia for their Spork in Hand puppet slams.

“[We] formed Belle et Bête in 2011 in order to grow the puppetry community here in Columbia, not only attracting more people to appreciate the diversity of the art form, but also inviting more people to actively participate,” Maeda says. “Helping to bring more puppet troupes through Columbia for full evenings of performances [is an] exciting step for us.”

But it might be off the mark to describe this particular “spectacle” as strictly a puppet show. Both Cook and Dorn appear as characters and make use of projections and other lo-fi technologies: shadows, balloon animals, light displays and the Victorian-era approach of toy theater — also called paper theater or model theater — which involves small-scale, toy-sized productions.

Perhaps it’s best not to pigeonhole Miniature Curiosa at all and instead to use their words and call it a “fast-moving, fast-talking (sometimes malfunctioning) live action comic book” exploring “the underbelly of childhood nostalgia.”

“This is not the theatre,” states the group’s website. “This is the living room of an overzealous musician who doesn’t know any tricks.” 

Conundrum Music Hall is at 626 Meeting St. in West Columbia. Tickets are $10. Doors open at 7 p.m. with an 8 p.m. curtain. Visit for more information.

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