Wishes Turned True In The Impracticality of the Modern Day Mastodon

Seeing as “mastodon undertaking” isn’t exactly common parlance, “mammoth undertaking” is probably the term I should use to describe the unique ambitions of Theatre Lab’s current production. 

Its first full-blown offering since the pandemic and the third mainstage production in its Heckscher Theatre For Family series, The Impracticality of The Modern Day Mastodon is a new play by Rachel Teagle geared towards both young and adult audiences. Or, as director Matt Stabile put it in his pre-show announcement, towards, “children of all ages.” 

If trying to appeal to both demographics weren’t a difficult enough task, it’s probably time I address the ten-foot-tall twelve-foot-long elephant-ancestor in the room. Carried around by a full three puppeteers, this massive mastodon puppet appears after a universe-warping wish transforms our main character, Jess, into the prehistoric mammal. 

The puppet trails actress Gabby Tortoledo across the stage as she continues to portray Jess’s human spirit within. Weighing in at a full 225 pounds, this model mastodon is quite impressively agile, swaying, gliding, and, on one occasion, nudging an offending spy with her trunk. And it’s just the biggest of the many incredibly fun touches of theatricality that Mastodon offers. 

Others include slapstick history retelling sequences and an evocative opening, in which the show’s other five performers, who all play multiple roles, usher us into the story as a chorus of “impractical” children imagining themselves as the title beast.

It’s a dream that Jess once had too, which is why that’s the form she takes when everyone instantly becomes the thing they most wished to be when they were a child. Her boyfriend Clarence (Daniel Llaca) goes from dissatisfied small-time journalist to suave super-spy, while more peripheral characters realize their dreams as weatherwoman, whale trainer, and astronaut. 

Much comedy can be found in the madcap world that results: ballerinas and firefighters are now a dime a dozen while, for instance, accountants, are woefully underrepresented. A vocation counselor played by Irene Adjan with an Umbridge-like sinister sweetness is about the only bureaucrat we meet, while princesses are now so plentiful that three must share each “princessipality.”

Jess seems to be the only one who has the sanity to question this bizarre state of affairs while she attempts to adapt to the modern world in her woefully impractical new form. Though Tortoledo is certainly competent as the character, I was less certain of heror more likely, her director’schoice to portray her adult character with a notably childlike affectation. Presumably, this was done to make her relatable to the show’s younger audiences, but it seemed rather at odds with the character as written, as well as with some of the darker undertones of the text. 

Morgan Sophia Photography

The rest of the cast fares better in playing the zanier collection of supporting characters that populate the play’s world, including the aforementioned Adjan and Llaca, who were excellent in their respective roles. An always on-point Niki Fridh acts the hell out of her roles as a sexy super spy, pompous Frenchman, and overly cheery newscaster, with Carlos Ayaleto adeptly playing her disgruntled co-anchor and making a few other cameos. 

Rachel Michelle Bryant rounds out the ensemble, and her jubilant energy is especially striking when she plays her most pivotal character, the child who happens to be the cause of all of this insanity. But the fact that we get no hint at this child’s existence until the final quarter of the play seems to highlight its underlying structural problems.

Morgan Sophia Photography

For all the sparkle and chutzpah this production of Mastodon had, I’m not sure that the script held up as well as its central puppet did. Part of this may be the tonal unevenness that came with being neither quite a kid’s show nor quite not one, but the result is that it may have ended up a little off of both marks.

The story feels too bittersweet and preoccupied with adult themes of unfulfilled ambitions and imbalanced relationships to be a carefree children’s story, yet developing a satisfying plot seemed to come second to letting the premise’s whimsy run rampant.

If Jess had taken the lessons from her fantastical world back into the real one, in the tradition of Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland, maybe The Impracticality of The Modern Day Mastodon would’ve felt closer to cohering into a full-circle story. As it is, though, I felt myself wishing that things had been resolved a little more cleanly—or, really, resolved at all. 

The ambiguity of the ending that we are left with feels out of place in the play’s otherwise over-simplified world, with the weighty questions raised by the complex ideas it explored going mostly unanswered. 

But there’s nothing like the presence of a giant mastodon puppet to emphasize the note of embracing impracticality that the show does end on. Perhaps the impractical children of today who find themselves in Mastodon’s audience will come away wanting to be theatre makers!

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