Review: THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM at Keegan Theatre

Priyanka Shetty's one-woman show explores acceptance, identity, and the immigrant experience.

By: Jun. 04, 2024
Review: THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM at Keegan Theatre
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Priyanka Shetty, the multifaceted creator behind THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM, leads audiences on a captivating journey, chronicling her transformation from an IT professional in India to an MFA Acting candidate at the University of Virginia, culminating in the poignant night of her one-woman show. This meta-narrative not only provides a glimpse into Shetty’s personal odyssey as an Indian immigrant in the United States but also delves into universal themes of identity and acceptance framed through the lens of a creative artist.

Shetty begins the journey backstage in her dressing room about to perform her one-woman show when she receives a mysterious package. There’s no indication who it might be from or why she’s received them minutes before going on stage. It turns out to be tarot cards featuring figures from Indian mythology and spirituality. 

These cards will loom large throughout the entire piece. Cleverly, the figures from the cards come alive and serve as a series of guideposts throughout the show. They each announce a lesson or theme that reflects the section or chapter of the story we’re about to witness. It’s a creative device by Shetty and one that helps orient the audience throughout the tale. 

At first, the cards distract her only briefly from what we first think is the central conflict, which is that she’s overcome with anxiety because her parents are coming to see the show. This seems to be a bit of a stretch, however, considering she tells us her parents have, in fact, already seen the show. It’s not even the first time they’ve seen her perform nor communicated their desire for her to stick to engineering, so why is this suddenly a crippling anxiety? 

The more believable conflict, and the one that thankfully turns out to be at the play’s center, is the one within Shetty herself. While the external conflict of parental expectations is no doubt an overshadowing presence, it is Shetty's internal struggle with self-worth and the pursuit of artistic fulfillment that resonates most profoundly. Her courageous leap from the confines of the corporate world to the uncertain terrain of immigrant actress-hood is a testament to her resilience and determination and makes for an interesting story. 

Once Shetty gets some kind of hold on her pre-show jitters, she lets us in on her backstory growing up in India. We learn several things - that she has a passion for elephants, metal music, and storytelling in its many forms, just to name a few. There’s also a peek into Shetty’s interactions with her family - mainly her mother and her brother. She portrays both characters quite well (as well as many others throughout) but we certainly get a fuller picture of her mother’s personality than our brief encounter with the latter. 

She then spends the next quarter of the show describing the absolute culture shock that happened when she immigrated to Charlottesville, Virginia as an MFA acting student at the University of Virginia. Despite enduring numerous rejections before securing her place and moving halfway across the world to start a new life, the MFA Acting program fails to meet her expectations. 

As Shetty deals with the cultural dissonance of her newfound home in Charlottesville, Virginia, she also grapples with finding her place within the program. The rejection she faced just applying to school in the first place continues during her two years in the program. These obstacles are compounded by the backdrop of Charlottesville's 2017 white supremacist rally, adding a compelling and challenging layer to her narrative. Despite facing setbacks and disillusionment within the confines of academia and the entertainment industry, Shetty's creation of THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM emerges from her time in the program and serves as a powerful act of self-discovery and empowerment for her. 

As the minutes tick down before the performance, this sense of empowerment only grows as Shetty seems to accept both who she is and who she is not. We’re now out of Shetty’s memories of the past and thrust into the present as Shetty prepares to take the stage - fully open, accepting, and ready to rock. 

The play is not just about Shetty’s journey but also a journey to find acceptance, an identity, and a sense of belonging. Those are universal themes that even non-immigrants can relate to as we’ve all felt out of place as we desperately try to cling to some sense of normalcy. Anything to escape the feelings of “otherness,” really. Unfortunately for Shetty, she’s looking for this acceptance in a career infamous for not providing that very thing to a great many. 

Shetty has a good story to tell, but the execution is not always sharp. It’s tough for anyone to be engaging alone on stage for 90 minutes, and Shetty is no exception. The piece would benefit from a bit more stillness and a bit more ownership of both space and story. Her story is unique and interesting but it’s sometimes diminished by the showiness of her acting. It’s not quite a “you’re supposed to laugh here” take to the audience, but it isn’t that far off from that. While the execution may falter at times, Shetty’s story of her artistic and personal evolution is interesting enough to cover the flaws.

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM is a DC premiere being produced as part of Keegan Theatre’s Boiler Room Series, which seeks to “create space and support for new voices in theatre.” The theatre will not only be producing Shetty’s next solo piece, #CHARLOTTESVILLE, but also commissioning her to write and workshop a third show, THE WALL, as well. Fans of new work and witnessing plays in development should be sure to make it to Keegan before the show closes on June 23.

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM is written and performed by Priyanka Shetty. Other creative team members included Suli Holum (Director), Theresa M. Davis (Original Director & Dramaturg), Lavina Jadhwani (Dramaturg), Gabrielle Busch (Stage Manager), Julie Briski (Lighting Designer), Dirk Durosette (Scenic Designer), Natali D. Merill (Sound Designer), Heather Mease (Composer), Ben Harvey (Lighting Coordinator), Katherine Stefl & Leigh Paradise (Costume Designers), Gordon Nimmo-Smith (Sound Coordinator), and Zoe Lucas (Associate Sound Coordinator).

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM has a run time of approximately 90 minutes with no intermission. The play runs at DC’s Keegan Theatre from now until June 23, 2024. 

Photo Credit: Teresa Castracane Photography


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