I first saw Margo MacDonald’s hit one-woman show, The Elephant Girls, at its sold out run at Ottawa Fringe in 2015. The script hasn’t changed in very substantial ways since then – the story is still fascinating, and the voice(s) that tell it are unique in my experience – so many of the reasons I liked it then are still strongly present now, and so instead of rehashing what I’ve already said, I am going to expand on a few of the whys behind my experience, and talk about some of the differences I notice.
Principally, I want to talk about the interview that forms the framing narrative structure of the show. The play is set in a bar some years after Maggie Hale’s tenure with London’s most famous (read: only) gang of women thieves. In 2015, I thought the consistent placement of the interviewer to whom she is telling these stories held the show back from reaching its staging potential. The present version feels more open, now that MacDonald has chosen to change the location of the interviewer each time they return to ask more questions.
Now that this staging block has been removed, I’m left with a few other questions. Principally, I wonder why Maggie is telling her story to the interviewer. In the initial stages of the show, it’s clearly just for fun. Maggie likes the attention; she wants to control how her story is told. But once the emotional content of the stories she tells reach a certain level, the stakes of telling the stories, of getting this information out there, need to rise correspondingly. She is clearly dying to tell this story her way, but the text right now doesn’t provide us with the context to understand why she is doing it to this interviewer, in this place, now. Given the play’s conclusion, it is clear that telling this story in this way is not something that Maggie does very often. I speculate that increasing the specificity of the interviewer’s identity will provide MacDonald with some solutions to this problem.
As a potential way into this, I will admit that I’m not quite sure if the interviewer is a man or not. The textual clues all point in that direction: they are a college student in an era when the vast majority of college students are men, they’re out until all hours buying drinks for criminals in bars, and they’re trying to be “mates” with Maggie. And yet Maggie’s very existence gives me pause, and makes me wonder if it’s just my own assumptions about (historical and present) gender roles that make me think the interviewer is a man.
It may seem odd that I am focusing so much attention on a detail that feels secondary to the fascinating story that Maggie is telling. Let the smallness of this detail indicate how strong the rest of the show is. After all, MacDonald conjures a whole world with voice and physicality; the characters in it are vivid, and their relationships unique. But the central relationship in this performance is the one between the performer and the audience. And since the interviewer stands in for the audience in many ways (they are placed there in a metaphorical sense as MacDonald addresses them), not making clear who they are creates a subtle undercurrent of confusion about our role in this whole affair. What does it mean to the interviewer to hear this story? What does it mean for us to hear it? What does it mean for them to be a man? What does it mean for them to be a woman? How does the story Maggie tells change? Why does she tell them, and only them, the truth about what happened?
The central theme of these questions, about the meaning and significance of the stories we tell, is touched on in the text already: Maggie suggests on a few occasions that she might just be lying to us. Exploring these ideas a bit more fully would tie the frame more closely to the fascinating central narrative, and let The Elephant Girls really punch above its weight.
A Parry Riposte Production
Written and performed by Margo MacDonald
Directed by Mary Ellis
Costumes by Vanessa Imeson
Lighting by Laura Wheeler
Stage Managed by Laurie Shannon
Promo and photography by Andrew Alexander