Comedy, Theater / Performance

Elephant Room (Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, September 2011)

The magicians strike back (photo from Live Arts brochure)

What they say it is: (from the Live Arts Website):

“The great dramatist Shakespeare wrote: Only an idiot would strut and fret for an hour upon the stage. Well let me tell you, we do not fret during this hour-long show. We mostly do magic instead.”- Dennis Diamond, mind-reader/performer of Elephant Room

In short: three illusionists, two acts, one room, zero boring stuff, sub-zero intelligence.

CLAY SAYS....As longtime fans of Philly Fringe and the (arguably more polished) Live Arts Festival, we found it difficult to pick just a few shows from the many excellent choices in the 2011 program.  Used to be that I thought of as Fringe as the “main event”, with LAF taking the snooty, elitist backseat.  2011 was my year when my eyes were opened—both of the stellar programs we attended at Live Arts featured explosive, top-notch entertainment with genuine depth and polish.

Alternatively, the single Fringe show that I attended–though a lone performance is definitely not a reasonable sample—was a complete failure marred by weak production and hack performance.  This disappointing effort–contrasted against the undeniable excellence of the Live Arts Festival–really drove home how hit-or-miss Fringe can be.  Though I’ve supported both for years, I find myself increasingly unwilling to spend valuable time and money on shows that just don’t cut the mustard, especially with so many better choices available.  While I definitely support Fringe as a forum for newcomers, I’m coming to realize that I get more out of artistic quality and professionalism—not amateur aspirations.  I’m not done with Fringe, but I’m forced to admit that my tastes may be shifting.

ANYWAY, Elephant Room—this was one of the good ones.

The show description listed at the top of this post is the specific reason I bought tickets to Elephant Room.  “Zero boring stuff”, ironic parody of high art, insane stock photographs of the cast—I was sold.  Though I don’t always go in for “zany” humor (don’t get me started on my utter contempt for It’s Never Funny In Philadelphia), this advertisement hinted at a bizarre, abstract self-awareness.  I was willing to take the risk; Tara was initially concerned that I might be wasting our money here (and I can see why—the cast performs under the names Dennis Diamond, Louie Magic, and Daryl Hannah) but she was willing to trust my instincts, and I think we’re both glad we did.

Louie Magic, Dennis Diamond, and Daryl Hannah--inspirations to us all. (All photos from the Live Arts Website).

This show was everything I’d hoped–unusually conceived, a wildly-offbeat sense of humor, and flashes of undeniable comic genius residing comfortably aside Zappa-esque cheapness.  Staged as a casual (if bizarre) evening at home with 3 would-be magicians, the show repeatedly built up and shattered the fourth wall that typically separates performers from audience.  The dynamics of the show were laughably absurd, following the trio through card tricks and visual pizzazz (think streamers shot out of coat sleeves) to a tender moment in bed (all three of them together, of course) to moments of genuinely amazing, offhand magic (an egg is tossed into an empty, handheld pan, shortly transforming into a fully edible omelette–no stove needed).  The whole thing was a seamless stew of goofy stage humor and cheap-ish magic tricks, and honestly, the campy whirlwind worked really, really well.

Saturated with the ludicrous flavor of pop-culture 1970s, Daryl Hannah sings a heartfelt rock ballad while another scene eavesdrops on a (barely) closeted Dennis Diamond who exchanges sweet nothings with his telephone sweetie.  Louie Magic (the show’s soft-spoken slight-of-hand master) strolls easily in the background, tossing off tricks like disposable candy wrappers.  Characters deliver their jokes and pretentious monologs in ridiculous hillbilly accents; character types walk a very fine line between childish and hilarious . . . yet I totally loved everything about it.  Imagine something between the hapless Napoleon Dynamite and Will Ferrell’s ridiculous Anchorman, and you get something approaching the heroes of Elephant Room.

Click here for a video of Elephant Room–a decent, if short, sampling of the show.

Here’s an interview with one of the members of the show–yet another good example for the ethos I’m struggling to describe.

Whats next for these guys?  According to their Live Arts bio, they’ve done stuff at previous festivals, and I’m definitely going to be on the lookout for their trio in the future.  Any show that “ends” with me leaving the theater, turning my cellphone back on, and discovering a voicemail message from the performers themselves. . . yep, I think I like this.

They’ve really got something unique here, and I’m hopeful that we haven’t seen the last of these residents of the Elephant Room.  A few clicks around the web revealed that the troupe is taking the show on the road (I found one scheduled performance in 2012 in Washington DC) . . . I’m glad to see the dream is still alive.

I am not going to touch the Live Arts Festival vs. Fringe argument.  Personally, I think Clay is going to open himself up to controversy by hinting that Fringe is for noobs–and has a high “could suck” factor–compared to snooty Live Arts Fest.  Though not directly plugged into the arts community in Philadelphia, I’m betting there are many opinions out there about the pairing of these two events.  So, I will stick to what I initially thought about Elephant Room–here’s a paraphrase:

“this show is going to suck. It’s about magic?  Uh, we all know that people who do magic walk the line of lame” (In line with Clay’s references to pop media, in this case, think Arrested Development’s George Oscar Bluth II–MAGIC = LAME).

If you need more convincing, scroll back to the top and check out the photo of them in the cross walk.  I thought LAME.  Elephant Room is going to be guys in silly tight pants, doing magic, cracking lame jokes.  They know are lame but they’re trying to be lame funny.  But just as my contempt was reaching epic heights, I got an email from the (genuinely wonderful) Pig Iron Theatre Company endorsing Elephant Room . . . damn, Clay was right again, this show was going to be quality.

click here for sad trombone.

Fast forward to the show: I was definitely not disappointed.  The omelette magic trick Clay mentioned  inspired conversation all the way home- how did they do it?  Was the chick from the audience (who actually ate a bite) part of the deception?  Would an egg cook if you somehow superheated the pan prior to cracking the egg in it?

However, our conversation was not limited to the magic tricks, but also the way these very witty gentlemen had constructed the show.  Was Elephant Room a magic show? A theatre production?  A comedy show? The talented group took three disparate characters (heavy-metal-hair Louie, abandoned/abused Diamond (a-la Liberace), and eagle-earth-spirit Daryl Hannah (divorced and addicted to alcohol)) and made them relate to each other and, believe it or not, worked excellently in a theatre production.  As the characters perform magic and deceive your senses, could they also be deceiving themselves?  As the audience picks up hints of the sad stories of each character. . . could their personal tragedies be the true “elephant in the room”?  Is “Elephant Room” actually not a reference to Harry Houdini’s famous elephant-disappearing trick (as claimed at the outset of the play), but something darker and more personal?

Houdini famously made an elephant appear on stage in one of his most famous stunts. And we got to see it recreated here in Philadelphia, 2011. For real.

My walkway feeling toward Elephant Room was that this was a very smart, witty and funny production.  The mix of character revelation, program title and devotion to small details is an example of how a theme can be introduced early, then carried throughout the show.  This is the genius of this work, this is why it is not all camp and fluff.  Thank you, Elephant Room.

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