Horrific case of animal cruelty basis for PIFA’s ‘Murderous Mary’ play

As part of the time-travel theme of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, “The Trial of Murderous Mary” is set at a very specific moment in time.

Sept. 13, 1916. Erwin, Tennessee. A circus elephant traveling through the small, rural town went on a rampage and killed its handler. Mary, the elephant, may or may not have been abused; the details of the incident are hazy.

Nevertheless, the people of Erwin demanded the circus owner kill the elephant in retaliation. To save his circus, Charlie Sparks hanged his 5-ton, “Murderous” Mary from the crane of a railroad derrick. About 2,000 people gathered to watch.

“It’s among the most shocking images I’ve ever seen,” said Gwen Rooker, the co-creator of the play, who first encountered a snapshot of the hanging many years ago. “I think about all the really dreadful images in the world, of things people have done, but that really stuck with me.”

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The performance is billed as “darkly comic,” blending fanciful play and horrific fact. Rooker and director Aaron Cromie (who showed off his vaudeville chops in 1812 Productions’ “Dave and Aaron Go To Work” last winter) re-create the spectacle of an early 20th-century traveling circus using ornate shadow puppetry, original music, clowning (Rooker is a classically trained clown), and doses of humor.

Even the preshow environment features a live contortionist, candied apples, and games.

“The show is full of delight and the magic of shadow puppetry and bright characters. It has a buoyant theatrical quality,” said Rooker. “At the point at which Mary has a rampage, it takes a darker tone. And, yes, even in that there is some humor.”

Evoking a long-ago circus and its audience

Rooker wanted to evoke not only the traveling circus of the early 20th century, but the people those circuses were trying to entertain.

The rooftop garden of the Kimmel Center, where the play is performed, is decorated with rustic fencing and hand-painted signs to mask the fact that the glass box is actually state-of-the-art event space. About halfway through the play, after Mary’s rampage, vengeance builds in the rural townsfolk characters as mob justice takes over.

Ultimately, Rooker shied away from re-creating the picture that originally sparked her interested in Mary. The act is implied more than seen.

“That’s the thing — people did a horrible thing; now let’s recount the horrible thing?” said Rooker. “You want the play to be entertaining, and you also want it to transcend entertainment and bring people to this place of continuing to question their own actions in the world, and of their fellows’ actions.”

Coincidentally, on the day the “Murderous Mary” opened at the Kimmel Center, a circus elephant performing with the Ringling Brothers in Tupelo, Mississippi, was shot in the neck by a drive-by shooter. That elephant, named Carol, is reported to be recovering.

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