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Priyanka Shetty’s The Elephant in the Room, now getting its Philadelphia debut as Azuka Theatre’s season opener, chronicles the artist’s journey from being a software engineer in India to becoming an actor in the US. In this autobiographical one-woman show, Shetty explores relatable themes of self-discovery, chasing the American dream, pioneering new pathways, and self-acceptance.
The show opens in a theater dressing room as Shetty hypes herself up to go on stage for the titular play. She is anxious because her parents, who have never approved of her career in the arts, are in the audience. Through a series of flashbacks aided by a mysterious gift of Ganesha-themed tarot cards, Shetty leaps through time and space to share her story. With each new reveal, each tarot card hovers in cubes on either side of the stage with excellent lighting design by Harbour Edney and scenic design by Dirk Durossette.
Growing up in India, Shetty felt limited by gender norms and patriarchal society. While her older brother was given the freedom to hang out with his friends and a say in his destiny, Shetty’s mother restricted her freedom to guide her as a proper young lady, which made Shetty hide her true self from her parents. She finds support and solace in a whirlwind romance and encouragement to explore her true passion in theater, leading to a fight with her mother. This is a memorable and well-executed scene with lightning-quick transitions between Shetty as herself and her enraged mother.
For Shetty, America represents a land of freedom, opportunity, bikinis for everyone, and a place to belong. Unfortunately, the reality is not as welcoming or vibrant as the dream she had been sold. As an international student at the University of Virginia, she faces microaggressions and roadblocks throughout her journey to become an actor. Seen as “too other” to be cast in her grad-school productions, she makes playwriting her path to both tell her own story and find a role where she can be herself.
Shetty’s compelling skills as an actor under director Suli Holum capture the attention and affection of the audience. Charming and arresting, Shetty skillfully leaps between herself, her Indian mother, her blasé American classmates, her opinionated Indian aunties, and more. But the play could benefit from a little trimming—80 minutes feels a bit long. There were times I wished for more: a more nuanced unpacking of identity and her journey of overcoming self-doubt, while other sections dragged on a little too long. However, Shetty’s magnetism as an actor carries the play through the occasional uneven pacing. This is Shetty’s playwriting debut, and I am curious to see the other plays in her triptych of solo shows.
The Elephant in the Room tells a bold immigrant story as unique as the immigrant experience itself. Shetty brings the show to vivid and joyful life. Don’t miss the chance to experience this heartwarming, hilarious, unique, and entertaining piece of theater.
What, When, Where
The Elephant in the Room. By Priyanka Shetty, directed by Suli Holum. Pay-what-you-decide. Through November 19, 2023, at the Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake, 302 S Hicks Street, Philadelphia. (215) 563-1100 or azukatheatre.org.
The Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake is an ADA-compliant venue with gender-neutral restrooms. All Azuka Theatre performances are pay-what-you-decide.
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