Herd Mentality

When a writer chooses to adapt a classic work, the purpose is to bring the piece's characters and theme to a modern audience using language and locations to which they can more easily relate. At first, this seems to be the idea that writer/director (and Tony winner) Dan Fogler had in mind when writing Elephant in the Room!, now playing as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. Using as a model Eugene Ionesco's treatise on the iconoclast as the last sane man in an insane world, Fogler swaps rhinoceroses for elephants and 20th-century France for 21st-century New York. The opening scene, in which the slovenly, unemployed pothead Bern is berated by clean-cut worker bee John in the particular vernacular of twenty-something males is funny and fresh while also hewing fairly closely to the original text.

But as the play unfolds, Ionesco acolytes realize that they have been bamboozled. Instead of extolling the virtues of being nonconformist, this show portrays the people who resist the transformation from man to elephant as stubborn and blind to the realities of current events. Why else would one of the last people to change be a certain Republican elected official who lives in the White House?

While this switcheroo is an interesting twist to the proceedings, especially for those familiar with Rhinoceros, it doesn't entirely fit in with the production. Once the last doppelganger scene of the source material is over, there are strange interchanges tacked on at the end, and an absurd (not in the good way) world threat that comes out of left field and is far too moralistic for what once was a subtle work.

According to Fogler's program bio, this adaptation was a reaction to the re-election of George W. Bush. But turning the play's protagonist into a misguided antihero does no justice to the purported message, or to the original show's intent.

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