Review: It's You Who Won't Forget "The Elephant in the Room"

The Elephant in the Room

Written and performed by Priyanka Shetty

Directed by Theresa M. Davis

Presented by A Passion for Language at at 59E59 Theaters

59 E. 59th St., Manhattan, NYC

July 15-24, 2022

Priyanka Shetty, Image courtesy A Passion for Language.
At one point in The Elephant in the Room, the one-woman show from Philadelphia-based actor, playwright, and director Priyanka Shetty, she says that she feels like someone gets her when she listens to metal (an experience that certainly resonates with some of us, even if we haven't been to Wacken). The struggle to be gotten, to define and carve a place for herself as a woman, an immigrant, and an artist, is at the beating, expansive heart of Shetty's autobiographical Elephant. The play is the second in a triptych: the first, #Charlottesville, which uses interviews with Charlottesville, Virginia, residents to probe the 2017 Unite the Right white supremacist rally and its aftermath, was presented virtually as part of 2021's East to Edinburgh Goes Digital festival (you can read our review here); and the third, The Wall, examines the immigrant experience in India, the United States, and the United Kingdom (a nexus briefly invoked in The Elephant in the Room as well). These three solo pieces will embark on a U.S. tour in the 2023-2024 season. Meanwhile, The Elephant in the Room makes its New York City premiere after, among other distinctions, a standing-room-only performance for its Washington D.C. premiere at the Kennedy Center and having won 2020 Broadway World Regional Awards (U.S.) for Best Performer of the Decade and Best Play of the Decade, following 2019 wins for Best Lead Actor, Best Play, and Best Director. Its NYC run is part of 59E59 Theaters' East to Edinburgh Festival, which showcases New York shows that will play the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest arts festival in the world, this August.

Priyanka Shetty, Image courtesy A Passion for Language.
The play begins with Shetty receiving an anonymous package at the theater where she is waiting to perform, a package that will later be meaningfully recontextualized to show complexities and blurriness of boundaries when it comes to identity. (The fact that the play she is performing is The Elephant in the Room adds a dash of Charlie Kaufman-esque metatextuality: presumably, at the end, the diegetic Shetty goes on to perform the play we have just seen in a sort of infinite theatrical inception.) She recalls memories of growing up in India, and recounts imaginings, one day to be disappointed, of the U.S. as a friendly, bikini-filled land of opportunity. With encouragement from one quarter and active resistance from others, including because of her gender, Shetty changes career paths and eventually continents. In the U.S., she must deal not only with the rejection and supporting roles through which many aspiring actors must persevere but also with those, including where she should be most supported, who are confused by or hostile to her "Otherness," all while trying not to lose parts of herself and not to just, as a certain band puts it, "do what they told ya."

The title of the show, as is probably obvious, holds more than one metaphorical meaning, but there is also a literal wooden elephant in the room, which travels with Shetty and which has its own symbolic value. Tarot cards and the ticking of a clock that is the one object that she still possesses from her childhood in India (and which thus has seen it all) help to mark structural and thematic divisions, as do effective lighting, sound, and costume design by Julie Briski, Heather Mease, Katherine Stefl, respectively. Shetty is a dynamic performer, vividly evoking other characters, major and minor, in her narrative, and using space and physicality for maximum immersive effect. Humor pervades the show, and Shetty deftly interweaves Elephant's comedic strain with its moments of loss, struggle, questioning, and resistance. In this case, you actually should do what they tell you: go see The Elephant in the Room.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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