Elephant in the Room!
nytheatre.com review by Chris Harcum
August 12, 2007
Ionesco's Rhinoceros gets a South Park-esque makeover in Stage 13's production of Elephant in the Room! While the original play was a reaction to Nazism and political conformity, Dan Fogler's show is, well, a reaction to Bushism and political conformity. This play is set in a parallel universe modern-day Manhattan. The story kicks off with uber-together John giving his soon-to-be brother-in-law, Bernie, a dressing down for being a wastoid. Sharp-witted Sylvia serves up breakfast as they see a newspaper headline stating that an elephant escaped downtown. Is this a sign of The End?
Suddenly, a poodle- and car-crushing elephant wreaks havoc. Instant connections are made to real-life New York events when the characters' cell phones lose their signals and a newscaster gets trampled in Union Square. Characters scramble to make sense of what is happening. Husbands are turning into elephants in Middle America. Is this a media scare tactic? What do people do about this? They move on again and again in this play, almost to the point of forgetting the Big Thing that is happening, only to realize how their apathy will kill.
Where the source material was a prime example of a godless and meaningless universe creating indifference in its inhabitants, Elephant is peopled with self-centered and selfish humans who complain about how selfish and self-centered the people who turn into elephants are. While Fogler notes in the program that this play was written in reaction to the re-election of Bush and the continued war in Iraq, he also questions whether someone (besides him) will come and lead us toward the light. By the end of the play, we aren't given any clear hope for the future. Sylvia jettisons Bernie in the penultimate scene saying, "If you can't evolve, then you're lost." Fogler seems to want the audience members to ponder whether they are a Sylvia, capable of creating change, or a Bernie, lost and angry with himself, realizing too late that he let it all fall apart.
This production boasts a highly talented ensemble of 11 actors playing upwards of 47 characters. None strikes a false note during the entire show. Sarah Saltzberg and Johnny Giacalone are stellar as Bernie and Sylvia. Ariel Shafer is sharp in the first act as John and then trumps everything with his transformational meltdown in the second act. Bjorn Thorstad's President and Ivy Vahanian's wife have the audience eating out of their hands. Holly Kastern's set and Cory Helm's costumes are exceedingly well-done. The scope of this production is MASSIVE so kudos to Jason Sturm as technical director and Lisa McGinn as stage manager.
Fogler's script has many moments of wit and insight, especially in the first act. It also has a second act that needs much attention. The major tonal shift has not been dealt with as thoroughly as the zanier moments. The points in what could be meatier scenes get rushed over or obscured and the play loses its momentum. The play ran more than 20 minutes longer than its listed playing time, so some pruning may be in order. (Major props to the venue director for dealing with the backlogged show coming after trying to start on time and their upset patrons.)
Dan Fogler and Stage 13 have brought together a high caliber ensemble with what may prove to be one the most ambitious projects in this year's FringeNYC. That trampling sound you hear at 45 Bleecker may not be the elephants stomping around so much as the new 800-pound gorilla in town flexing its muscles.