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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

TUSK a new work by Bea Cordelia Sullivan-Knoff

Or: “There’s nothing lost that may be found, if sought”

There are times, thinking about the nature of love, when I despair, I really do. Even if, by miracle, we can sufficiently crack open our own bubble of beliefs and insecurities to really, selflessly, make space for another (a family member, a friend, a lover) there comes the knowledge that one day Time will take them from us and cart them far beyond our reach. The closer you hold that heart to yours, the more pain as it is ripped away and there is no word or sight or sound that can cauterize that wound. In TUSK, Sullivan-Knoff creates a majestic mammoth of a play, holding on to what it is to search for something lost, for completeness, for a happy ending; for a year, or twenty or fourteen thousand.

The time is The Cold. Mammoth (Alexandra Frisch) has been searching for her missing tusk, and something else, for a long long time. She finds an ally in Ismo (Ryan Martin) a young man who uncovers her skeleton digging on the spot his mother Sara (Eva Victor) died. Fleeing the cold home his father Tapani (Dylan Pickus) cannot warm, Ismo travels the globe hoping to complete Mammoth’s quest and restore his mother to life. Mammoth meanwhile tracks the long journey of her missing tusk. She tracks it to the HMS Ontario at the end of the revolutionary war, where it serves as an unlikely bond between two officers, Robert Banks (Tom DeFrancisco) and Paul Hope (Sam Douglas), the one looking for the meaning manhood, the other looking for love. She tracks through the flat and the squabbles of Robert’s decedent Tom (DeFransisco again) a quirky archeologist and his rocky relationship with Ajara (Zoe Nadal) a decidedly anti-quirky economist. And she tracks it as Ismo becomes a man, studies under and falls for the bitter queen of the tusk hunters Maiya (Laura Winters) and confront the life he wasted and the life he is about to waste.

Like Sarah Ruhl, Sullivan-Knoff is a poet and grafts the one art to the other with skill. Her descriptions of the nature of love, physical, psychical, and soulful, the majesty of the shifting eons and the racing pace of nature, are more than a match for the wild wonders she conjures onstage. She also knows how to squeeze both poetry and playwriting together to have pure extract of empathy drip out. For all their various backgrounds and world views, the characters never smack of falseness nor contrivendom. Sometimes the driving philosophies behind their wants are unclear (John and Ajara’s contention over stolen and gifted histories is a bit insubstantial) but their world views (Ajara’s description of “the sunk cost of a broken heart” or Paul’s urge to make over history) are as clear and believable as rock beneath snow.

This epic and unbelievable flights of fancy sketched in the stage directions are niftily conjured by director (and music stand enchantress) Daphne Kim who builds a world with glances, some economized movement sequences, and generally behaves as a director archeologist: taking the bone of given work and daring us to imagine what it would be in real life. The whole cast rallies behind her like a team of expert interpreters: notables include Pickus’s underplayed suffering, uncertain of how to ring down the bucket his practical understanding into the well of his sons suffering; Winter’s graceful slidings between frozen command and unashamed giddiness and Frisch’s blooming voice and mounting anguish as she “speaks in weather” calling out to her many, many children down the ages, their love leading to naught, but still cultivated, for who knows what might sprout from it.

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