One performer, unknown to me. A solo show about her own life, for an hour and a half. A 9:30pm start time. Was I going to be able to stay awake? Was I going to regret this?
Thankfully, the time flew by – like Dumbo the Elephant? – during Melanie Greenberg’s autobiographical cabaret-style show The Elephant in the Room. Presented (live and in-person!) as part of the 2021 United Solo Festival anddirected by Joanie Schultz, it’s a tightly constructed and entertaining dive into the surprisingly compelling life story of a Broadway-loving Jewish girl.
In her artistically crafted telling, Greenberg grows through a series of troubles and recoveries that boil down to the existential question, “What am I doing here, in a body?” A childhood encounter with a circus elephant strikes her as the epitome of a creature taken from its natural environment and deposited where it is profoundly out of place. After all, an elephant shouldn’t even be “in a room,” right?
Monologue passages alternate with brief, clever songs that fulfill three functions. They inject change and color into the recounting of what is fundamentally a story of one not-so-unusual life. They link sections of the piece together with recurring motifs and lyrical themes. And they amuse us by pointedly evoking – without quoting – famous musicals and their famous stars. Pianist Bill Zeffiro accompanies with gusto and mugs amusingly, a helpful foil for Greenberg’s woozy antics.
Greenberg takes us through rebellion against a domineering mother; depression, drugs and alcohol; a Pentecostal awakening; an Ivy League crash-out; suicidality; and a two-year stint in a “therapeutic boarding school” which is something like the garden of horrors Paris Hilton described in the recent documentary This Is Paris). These things in themselves offer good storytelling, but the show’s surprises and the power come from its author/star’s talent at weaving these episodes into a thematically and artistically coherent cabaret-like evening, and putting it all across with verve, charm, and plenty of humor.
The show also offers a plug for psychedelics. Greenberg, or her stage persona, returns periodically to a memory of an ayahuasca ceremony, a controlled psychedelic trip during which she gleans key wisdom. It helps her see things from her mother’s perspective and understand what made the woman the way she was. An orchestra of mental health medications (recounted in a storm of words worthy of Tom Lehrer) helped intermittently but didn’t provide any needed answers. Neither did AA – and was she even an alcoholic? The session helps her see that “all the things you believed about yourself were wrong.”
“Reclaiming one’s own agency” may be a buzzphrase of the moment, but it’s something many of us struggle to do – and must do if we want to reconcile ourselves to “being here, in a body” as a contiguous human being, not an elephant in a circus. With a light touch and a smart wit, through showing us one woman’s journey The Elephant in the Room shines a light on all of ours. It has one more performance at the United Solo Festival, Nov. 18 at 1pm. Tickets are available online.