The Elephant Pen, let me tell you about is a bone-chilling psychological thriller! I don’t know that it chilled my bones, but it certainly kept me on the edge of my seat even after having had little sleep the night before. The story begins during a rainstorm as an extreme Type “A” personality type (George Isaacs) suddenly enters, uninvited, a doctor’s (Larry Johnson) apartment as he is relaxing at home. This stranger carries a leather satchel, throughout the play, which he forbids the doctor to touch. Type A is charismatic and endearing in a psychopathic sort of way. The audience watches and waits as he makes himself at home—to the doctor’s extreme dismay— yet for some strange reason, the doctor cannot find the strength to throw this crazy man out. When he finally gets “the balls” to do so, the stranger again flips the script and threatens the doctor’s life. Although the audience anticipates a violent confrontation between this very crazy “White-ish” man with a satchel and this very reticent Black physician, the audience is kept in suspense: when will the crazy intruder reveal his intentions to harm this doctor, who seems incredibly passive despite seeming to hold the upper hand in body strength and position? Something’s holding him back. What is it? There is a hint of latent homosexuality on the part of the doctor who the stranger attempts to seduce. Then there is the issue of his Hippocratic oath to “first, do no harm.” But the underlying idea is suggested in the voiced over prologue at the opening of the play:
When a baby elephant is trained for the circus, they pound
an iron stake into the ground with an iron chain attached
and clamp the chain to one of the elephant’s ankles. He
cannot break free. With a fully grown behemoth, the same
procedure is followed. He will not break free, though he
easily has the capacity to do so—he will not, because the belief
that he cannot is still firmly imprinted.
The original script, written by Canadian playwright Étienne LePage has been adapted by Phillipe “Keb” Brochard and ably “Americanized” by Director Lissa Moira, who ingeniously cast a very muscularly built Black man, Larry Johnson, in the role of the doctor/elephant who has been trained not to respond to his own captivity. Although he lives in a secure little world, his steps are unsure even in his own private domain.
George Issacs, who speaks with a very slight Hispanic accent, plays the crazy intruder, a skinny, crazy “white” guy (he could easily fit into any of a dozen different ethnic types including Italian, Greek, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Jewish), who like a used car dealer, refuses to take “no” for an answer. Johnson’s bodybuilding physique forces the audience to question why he doesn’t just lift this crazy, annoying, pain-in-the-ass nut up off his feet and toss him and his leather satchel out the door. But the beauty of it is—he never does. Both the casting and the set design reveal an off-kilter world that exists in modern our time: Humankind has learned to deny who he/she is, their gut feelings, even when it’s fatal. Moira’s conception and direction reveal a depth that may or may not have been the playwright’s conscious intention, but she makes this play particularly relevant to the American audiences issues of racial and gender oppression—especially with regard to the recent highly publicized police shootings of unarmed Black citizens.
THE ELEPHANT PEN deserves an extended run and I hope it happens. The play is not for children, nor immature adolescents. Besides the slight homo-erotica, there is non-gratuitous frontal nudity totally appropriate to the action.
July 7 to July 17, 2016
Thursdays through Saturdays 8pm, Sunday 3pm
The Cabaret Theater (downstairs)
Theater for the New City
155 First Avenue
For more information call: (212) 254-1109 or visit: www.theaterforthenewcity.net