by Steven Cherry · May 26, 2015
Production photo | Nicholas Kostner
A play should always be about something. Mammoth: A De-Extinction Love Story, purports to be about two things: the de-extinction of the wooly mammoth, and love. As a play about the former, it fails—in fact, it seems to have little to say about mammoths and even less to say about de-extinction. So how does it fare as a play about love?
The first scene opens on an unnamed tundra, where a mammoth researcher by the name of Beloved sits, lonely and cold, until approached by Lover, who may or may not turn out to be a wooly mammoth, but gets Beloved’s attention by telling her, straight-away, that she spied her from across the tundra, and loves her.
It’s a love that will eventually be requited, sort of, but we’ll never understand the nature of it. Can love exist when only one party has noticed the other? Does it matter that they’re both women, or are these two actors playing their roles in a gender-neutral way? If obsession can exist between a person and an extinct species, can love? We’ll never know, as these questions aren’t answered, or even explicitly raised, in this tantalizing and ultimately frustrating play.
After that opening scene, the play moves into a lab, where one of the characters from the first scene encounters the head of the lab and a young scientist, Shadow, who seem to have succeeded in growing something in a wooden crate. Is it a wooly mammoth? No. When it’s pulled out, it looks like a large animal heart. Could the playwright be supposing that to revive a species, one grows its organs, one at a time, and then assembles them? Unfortunately, one cannot rule this out, because nothing more is made of it.
In the opening scene, Beloved and Lover were looking for wooly mammoth bones or carcasses, but they could be looking for anything rare and hard to find—and could be looking anywhere. (In the play’s only scientific moment, the word “tundra” is explained incorrectly.) Worse, in a later scene, Shadow randomly and confusingly declares, “There never were any mammoths.”
The play’s conclusion manages to tie together a few disparate threads. It takes, however three different scenes to do so, each of which feels like a finale. That’s a mark of a play that has lost its way—or never had one.
In the most powerful of the three endings, much is made of the idea of there only being two members of a species remaining—and what happens when one of the two dies. Unfortunately, this misrepresents the extinction process (a species will lose the extinction battle when its population goes below a critical mass, well before it’s down to two members) but it does raise an interesting question of whether love can endure the loss of one party. (Most of us would say yes, but the play’s metaphor would answer otherwise.)
There are a few other strong scenes, but they have little to do with the story. In one, a character implores another to dance with her, and the other makes a fine speech distinguishing loving someone from feeling sorry for them. But that speech would fit into any other play. Another such moment involves a song, “This Is a Song About Tusks.” It’s lovely and beautifully sung, but the one thing it isn’t is a song about tusks—substitute any other concrete noun and it works equally well.
A play needs to be about something, and not just grand ideas, but in its bones—or tusks, as the case may be. Since it ignores de-extinction (a real scientific effort to bring back the wooly mammoth is under way, which this play ignores), then this must be a play about love—but what is it saying?