Proud Mary | Theater | Style Weekly

They say an elephant never forgets, but Murderous Mary wasn’t given much time to remember the most historic moment of her life.

Mary was a five-ton Asian elephant traveling with the Sparks World Famous Shows circus in 1916 when she met her sad ending in Tennessee. The star of the circus’ elephant parade, Mary was out front when her rider, a man with no previous experience with elephants, prodded her behind the ear when she reached down to nibble on a watermelon rind.

Accounts vary, but one holds that this prodding enraged her so much that she snatched her rider with her trunk, threw him, then crushed his head with her foot. A veterinarian later observed that Mary had a severely infected tooth in the precise spot where she had been prodded.

With a PR nightmare on their hands, the circus decided the only way to deal with the homicidal pachyderm was to publicly hang her to death from a crane. She was buried in an unmarked grave nearby.

This historic incident inspired Lucius Robinson and Kevin Duvall’s play “Irvinville.” The show, which stars Robinson and Duvall, comes to freshly resurrected venue The Basement on Nov. 18.

“It’s a play about America’s penchant for self-destruction,” says Duvall, reached at his home in Chicago. “We bounce between about a dozen characters, telling a story which involves an entire town over the course of several generations.”

Taking place in the fictional Irvinville, the play centers on Jaxson Sallow, the last living person in a once semi-prosperous small town.

“The circus comes to town, something goes wrong and one of the circus elephants escapes and kills a couple people,” says Duvall, who grew up in Midlothian and now lives in Chicago. “The town is then besieged by this rampaging elephant, which is in the woods surrounding the town until the townspeople come together, capture the elephant and publicly lynch it.”

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  • The play uses no technical elements, such as sets, props or sound design, so that anyone can perform it anywhere.

The play begins with Jaxson as an old man, then uses flashbacks or dreams to explain what happened to Irvinville.

“The town has certainly undergone some kind of cataclysmic changes, like the sky is perpetually dark,” says Robinson, who lives in Baltimore. “It’s cold and everything’s sort of shuttered up, like the very beginning of ‘The Lorax.’”

The town is a stand-in for America and the current political and social moment we find ourselves in.

“Specifically, it’s Rust Belt-y, Appalachian-ish rural America,” Duvall says. “A lot of people are really content living in a context-free world, so part of the goal of the show is to illustrate in so many ways how we have to come to this edge of an abyss.”

Robinson says the show’s themes include our ability to deceive ourselves and the dangers of acting solely in your own self-interest.

“The underlying message is it’s important to thoroughly self-examine yourself,” Robinson says. “It’s important to understand that there are those who will sacrifice everything in the world for gain.”

“Irvinville” began in the pandemic as a way to keep Duvall and Robinson occupied. The show’s creators wrote together for three-and-a-half years and say there’s 600 pages of material that will probably never see the light of day.

The duo met while attending Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre in Blue Lake, California. Because of their training, Robinson and Duvall say they’ve eschewed the traditional trappings of professional theater.

“We don’t use any technical elements whatsoever,” Duvall says. “We don’t have any props. We don’t have any set. We don’t have any lights or sound design or anything like that. This is so that the show can be performed anywhere, ideally for anyone.”

Part of that process involved creating physical masks for characters to rehearse with and figuring out ways to make each character distinct from the others without costumes or props. For the role of a World War I veteran who was presumably injured by mustard gas, Duvall devised a way of walking and holding himself.

The duo say they want “Irvinville” to feel like two people telling you a story around a campfire.

“It’s a really unique experience. It’s grounded in a storytelling tradition that goes right back to the beginning of this country and beyond,” Robinson says. “It is about a boy and an elephant and a town that rises and falls.”

“Irvinville” plays Saturday, Nov. 18 at 7 p.m. at The Basement, 300 E. Broad St. Tickets are $15. For more information, visit

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