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'Dead Elephants' by Alexander Offord

Presented by Good Old Neon and now onstage at the Aki Studio in the Daniels Spectrum

Credit: Connor Price-Kelleher L-R: Nicole Wilson and Hayden Finkelshtain

Joe Szekeres

‘Thought provoking. The opening night production triggered some around me, so it’s important to know that going in.”

Performer Nicole Wilson utters a line at the end of ‘Dead Elephants’ that rings true for me:

“I’m not what I once was.”

Isn’t that the truth for all of us, depending on what occurs in our lives?

Seeing a live theatrical production that touches the essence of who we are as individuals will also not make us who we once were. I applaud Good Old Neon for following through on its mandate to invoke shock, inquisition, and visceral responses in its productions. ‘Dead Elephants’ does that. It deserves to be discussed. From the Facebook site, there is an opportunity for post-show discussion before the March 17 closing. Avail yourselves of that chance.

Allan Cooke, Hayden Finkelshtain, and Nicole Wilson play twelve characters across four timelines. Alexander Offord’s dense script contains much that is said and not said, so pay careful attention.

‘Dead Elephants’ is billed as: “Paris, 1870: a pair of French soldiers plot to kill and eat the elephants in the city zoo. St. Thomas, Ontario, 1885: P.T. Barnum’s famous elephant, Jumbo, is struck by a train. Coney Island, 1903: an elephant is publicly electrocuted in what becomes the earliest recorded footage of the moment of death. These three stories are braided around the contemporary struggle of a young couple (Finkelshtain and Wilson) grieving the loss of their infant child.”

I seem to recall that elephants can also feel the pain of death, just as humans can. For example, I can also recall elephants carrying their dead calves to be buried. However, I’m unsure if elephants (or any animals) cry like humans when death strikes.

Nonetheless, it’s an exciting thought to consider.

Periodically, though, I was slightly puzzled about this mammoth task playwright Offord and the directors set for themselves. The story of Topsy the Elephant piqued my curiosity. Was I to watch and experience a story regarding the dehumanizing treatment of elephants (which would have been an interesting look knowing about the YouTube link), or was I to watch and experience a story about a couple and their responses to the death of their infant baby girl (which would have also been compelling.)

A quibble, I know, but there are two good stories that would most certainly draw an audience's attention.

I can recall once hearing a theatre adjudicator tell a group of students to be wary of a director taking a role in a play. Director Nicole Wilson takes on a role in this play. According to that adjudicator, that is not a good choice. How can the director be that watchful eye during the rehearsal process?

That didn’t bother me at all. That’s why there is an Assistant Director.

When I refer to the direction of the play, I’m going to group Nicole Wilson and Nicola Atkinson together. They’ve made some good choices for the most part.

For one, they care deeply about the story and want their audiences to feel the same. Wilson and Atkinson keep the production’s pacing clipping along. Set Designers Kris Van Soelen and Nicole Wilson decided to keep some scenes on trolleys rolled on and off with nary a squeaky wheel. Connor Price-Kelleher’s Lighting Design securely highlights some dramatic moments, but there are a few times when the three performers appear in shadow while speaking, and I couldn’t see their faces.

The choice was also made to stage ‘Dead Elephants’ in a three-quarter theatre in the round setting. For the most part, it is a good choice, especially when the action comes downstage in front of the three sides of the audience. From where I sat, there were important plot development moments I couldn’t see, and I wished I could do so. Alexander Offord’s sound design carefully highlights and appropriately sets each moment's tone and mood.

Performances are strong and never revert to histrionics. Upon entering during the pre-show, Allan Cooke (dressed as a pigeon) sits on a trolley, suspiciously eyeing audience members entering the auditorium. Cooke also incorporates his movement around the three sides where the audience sits and makes eye contact. I sat in the front row, and he came right in front of me, stared at me momentarily and then cocked his head to one side as a bird might do. I could feel a smile underneath my mask because I was watching a bird do what birds do – surveying the scene before them.

I’ll be honest. For the longest time, I wondered what a pigeon had to do with the story. And I don’t want to spoil where it finally becomes clear. Quite clever!

Nicole Wilson and Hayden Finkelshtain quickly and believably become many of the characters in the story. They are the soldiers. Wilson becomes the lover of the man who is trampled to death by the elephant in St. Thomas. Their opening bits in Acts One and Two as the circus ringmasters (a la Barnum and Bailey) with their shtick are effective reminders that life is sometimes a rowdy, fast-paced and at times incomprehensible circus of oddly curious individuals. Wilson and Finkelshtain shine in their poignant portrayals of a husband and wife torn asunder in the sudden loss of their child—some heart-rending work to be applauded.

And Another Thought: In their Programme Note as Co-Artistic Directors of Good Old Neon, Alexander Offord and Nicole Wilson write that ‘Dead Elephants’ is in part about finding the liveness in things, even in dead things. I like that term – the liveness in things. That’s what theatre is supposed to do. Find the liveness in things.

I look forward to hearing more about Good Old Neon in future and their stories about finding the liveness in their storytelling.

Running time: approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes with one interval/intermission. Masks are required.

DEAD ELEPHANTS runs to March 17 in the Aki Studio at the Daniels Spectrum, 585 Dundas Street East. For tickets:, call (416) 531-1402 or

Good Old Neon presents DEAD ELEPHANTS by Alexander Offord
Producers: Nicola Atkinson, Sebastian Biasucci, Allan Cooke, Hayden Finkelshtain, Alexander Offord & Nicole Wilson
Directed by Nicole Wilson
Assistant Director: Nicola Atkinson
Set Designers: Kris Van Soelen and Nicole Wilson
Lighting Designer: Connor Price-Kelleher
Sound Designer: Alexander Offord
Stage Manager: Sarah Brawn

Performers: Allan Cooke, Hayden Finkelshtain, Nicole Wilson

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