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ELEPHANT SHAVINGS: Ron Sossi’s Wandering Through Eastern Thought in Search of the Meaning of Life

By Robert St. Martin

Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 9/1/23 – Wednesday evening, I was at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles for a new play written and directed by Odyssey Theatre Ensemble artistic director Ron Sossi – Elephant Shavings. It opened August 26 and runs six weeks through October 1. Described by Ron Sossi as “a lazy person’s guide to enlightenment,” this humorous and somewhat absurd play evolved out of Sossi’s enduring interest in the realm of metaphysics and Eastern philosophies, including Buddhism, Hinduism and Sufism, as well as modern Western teachers like Rupert Spira and Mooji. The play opens at the end of the season of a production of Sam Shepherd play complete with a set reminiscent of some of Shepherd’s play. Cast members are having a closing night party and end up discussing acting and directing styles which soon lead to an intense parlay about what is reality and the purpose of theatre in portraying human experience.

Giovanni Quinto, Diana Cignoni, Jee LeBeau, Cameron Meyer, & Jack Geren

One member of the theater ensemble Lizzi (Diana Cignoni) tries to stay out of the rapid-fire discussion. As she soon confides to the company’s stage manager Jill (Giovanna Quinto), she finds herself challenged to do some soul-searching about her own sense of self and the nature of reality. Instead of relaxing at the offstage cast party, two of the company, Sam and Erin (Jeff LeBeau and Cameron Meyer), immediately launch into a stilted argument, with Erin defending scientific method while Sam, whose world view is based on the “white hot f**king reality” of his acid experiences, disparages her empirical practicality. Meanwhile, their director Peter (Jack Geren) acts as a moderator of sorts. Or is this just another of Peter’s theater games? Are we to take this argument seriously or playfully? Despite the best efforts of Sossi’s performers, the entire exchange seems like an add-on to the real purpose of the play.

Diana Clopton as Lizzie

The company’s lead actor Lizzie (Diana Cignoni), who has been quietly watching from the sidelines, then takes center stage. After the others depart, Lizzie confides to stage manager Jill (Giovanna Quinto) that she is at a crossroads in her life. Nearing 50 years of age, she has just miscarried her baby, and her beloved spiritual mentor has just died. With her boyfriend out of the country for some months, she would just as soon retreat to a cave in complete isolation and figure out what her next path in life should be.

Lizzie (Diana Cognoni) explaining her desire to be alone all summer to Jill (Giovanni Quinto)

Jill suggests that the theater, now empty for the summer and has a kitchen and functioning bathroom would be the perfect “cave” for Lizzie’s Platonic retreat. At that point, the action largely becomes centered on Lizzie’s singular and concentrated exercises in self-discovery – from meditation to chanting to Sufi whirling. Just as we begin to lose interest in Lizzie’s New Age meditation efforts, her solitude is broken by the arrival of energetic yet strangely mysterious visitor Pearl (Denise Blasor) who may not be the simple maintenance worker she initially claims to be.

Denise Blator (Pearl) & Diana Cignoni (Lizzie)
Lizzie (Diana Cignoni) & mysterious Pearl (Denise Blator) doing whirling dervish dance.

Jill had mentioned that there is supposedly a theater ghost, a young Chicano man who used to work for the theater and Jill showed Lizzie how to see any movements in the building on the security cameras linked to her laptop computer. After an initial meeting with this mysterious rather psychic Pearl, Lizzie actually sees the phantom on the security camera. As Lizzi grabs a baseball bat to chase the phantom away, the play struggles with what that ghost might mean. Pearl seems to have supernatural connects of her own, being so knowledgeable about Native American culture and the land which the theater occupies. We are supposed in a Sam Shepherd kind of New Mexico setting but suddenly Sossi has decided that this could also be Sepulveda Boulevard, immediately outside the side door of the Odyssey Theater. As Sossi explained later about the play being “part existentialist thriller, part ghost story. The theater functions as a character in the play, as does Sepulveda Boulevard, which is just outside the exit door and covers an ancient footpath used by the Gabrieleno Tongva people.”

Lizzie (Diana Cignoni) chasing the ghost.

The meditative moments of Lizzie alone in the closed-up theater space are occasionally interrupted by GrubHub food deliveries which Jill arranged before leaving for the summer in Brazil. Curiously enough, the mysterious Pearl keeps popping in and out of the place, as if a spiritual presence overlooking Lizzie’s search for herself and life’s meaning. At times, Pearl seems to be of Native American background associated with a nearby Native American tribal community but then we wonder if she too is a ghost. Despite all the New Age books and videos from spiritual gurus, Lizzie seems lost in a “spiritual supermarket” in her “cave.” Eventually Pearl comes to the rescue by telling Lizzie to just sit in a chair and repeat “Who am I?” over and over. Despite the fine acting of Diana Cignoni, whose range is impressive, the character of Lizzie seems to arrive at a strange place at the play’s end – becoming virtually invisible to others.

Lizzie (Diana Cignoni) meditating

The amalgam of Eastern philosophical talking points does not help Lizzie much nor does it help to hold the play together. Is this a tongue-in-cheek look at New Age philosophies as understood in the West? Is the play partially satiric? The ending suggests that it is quite serious. And perhaps the theatricality of the entire production hints at how the stage is never the real world but a place for words and ideas to populate a space for a short period of time. The “elephant shavings” of the play’s title point to the idea of a sculptor carving a statue of an elephant from an ordinary block of wood. This is a short of Platonic metaphor for getting to the essence of things, just like the “cave” metaphor on which the theatre represents and is worked like Plato’s allegory in Lizzie’s confused attack on a spectre seen on a television monitor. Like Lizzie, we wander through the “shavings” without ever really finding the elephant within. And when at the play’s end, she finds herself in an out-of-body semi-mystical quiet place and invisible to most others, we puzzle over what we have just seen on the stage in the previous 2 ½ hours.

Ron Sossi founded the Odyssey Theatre in 1969 to demonstrate that experiment-oriented theater could have populist appeal and be fiscally solvent while maintaining the highest artistic standards, and he has led the company as its artistic director for its entire 54-year history. Recent Odyssey directing projects include Wakings, The Serpent, Faith Healer, Steambath, The Dance of Death, Beckett5, My Sister, Oedipus Machina, Theatre in the Dark (LA Weekly nomination for Best Production of the Year), Way to Heaven (LA Weekly and LADCC nomination for Best Production of the Year), Adding Machine: A Musical, The Arsonists (LA Weekly nomination for Best Direction), Sliding Into Hades (LA Weekly Award for Best Production of the Year), Kafka Thing!, Far Away and The Threepenny Opera.

Performances of Elephant Shavings take place on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm, from August 26 through October 1 (dark Friday, September 15). Two additional dates were added: Wednesday, August 30 and Monday, Sept. 17, each at 8 pm. Friday nights are “Wine Nights” where viewers can enjoy complimentary wine and snacks and mingle with the cast after the show. Tickets to performances range from $25 to $40, except Mondays and Wednesday, which are Pay-What-You-Will. The Odyssey Theatre is located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles, 90025. For more information and to purchase tickets, call (310) 477-2055 or go to www.OdysseyTheatre.com.