Eugene Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros (1959) grew from his increasingly lonely witness to the attraction that Nazism held among the circles he traveled in during World War II. Ionesco (b. 1909, Slatina, Romania—d. 1994, Paris, France) and many of his friends would have been around 20 in 1939, the prime age for idealist fervor.
Strawberry Theatre Workshop intentionally produced this play to highlight the challenges of our current presidential election climate. Jess K. Smith’s direction found the play’s rhythm and allowed the players great freedom to make even the smallest roles vivid and contributors to the play’s absurd momentum. The play is worth seeing for its enduring relevance to the tension between joining the herd and holding true to ones values. Also see it for its historical importance to the development of the theater of the absurd, or as Ionesco preferred, the “theater of derision.”
The absurd plot has a straight-arrow arc: people in a small French town spot one or two rhinoceros running loose. Eventually it dawns on the lead character that the rhinos are not wild, but the people who inhabit the town and they are created by a change in mind and hearts and moral choices of the people themselves. Like a good horror story the balance tilts slowly from just a few rhinos to only a few humans left.
The play opens with the semi-bohemian, dirty, hungover, and chronically late Bérenger meeting a friend, Jean, at a small cafe. Jean immediately points out that Bérenger is late, and in the course of a few minutes also that she is sockless (Jean lends her a pair, obvious ready for this), smelly, and has some dust on the back of her shirt. Bérenger is more amused than annoyed by her friend’s helpful attentions, though eventually she gets talked into quitting her drinking and taking in more culture (museums and plays) with the freed up money and time. You can guess how long that resolution lasts.
Meanwhile the Logician is at a side table teaching the Old Gentlemen the rudiments of logic. The audience is supposed to understand it is all a bunch of abstract rhino excrement.
The logician’s conversation and the friends’ mild game of sado-masochism is interrupted by the sound of thundering hooves and everyone rushes to the window to see what made it—a rhinoceros. The townspeople and cafe guests fall into the excited chatter that happens when something odd is witnessed—debating what actually happened. This ends the first act.
By the opening of the second act we know that the rhinos are really transformed people. Why would anyone want to be a rhinoceros? Well, Jean explains to Bérenger, “why not be a rhinoceros? I’m all about change.” Seems familiar? Substitute “growth” for “change” and you have the philosophy of many of the supporters of Mayor Murray’s “growth” agenda.
Doing a scene-change break projected newsreels of Hitler’s parading German troops plus more recent scenes from North Korea’s string of dictators helped to forge the connections between the play and dictatorships for the audience.
Carol Louise Thompson, as Bérenger, either makes the play or ruins it. This is the character that Lawrence Olivier played in the 1960 English language world premiere. Thompson does well. We watch Thompson’s own amazement as first her friend and then her work colleagues switch off their autonomy and join the herd.
Shawn Beylea as Jean, Bérenger’s friend has the physical challenge of showing us at the beginning of the second act the experience of losing ones humanity and becoming a rhino. It’s great theater and fun to watch.
All the other actors are wonderful in the roles. Daisy (Amy Mayles) should be a little more romantic in the opening moments of the closing scenes.
Scenic designer Greg Carter offered a stripped-down stage, simple furniture, and easy to roll about platforms for the various change of scenery. The backdrop was a wall of white fabric, a great surface for the projection of newsreels of Nazi parades.
The situation is absurd but there was very little laughter. Part is from Ionesco’s lack of comic sense or perhaps the fault of the translation. Ionesco wanted to write a play so we can watch people argue out these points, as though most of us are not or have not lived and argued similar issues ourselves. If not careful you end up with what he has left us with: circular, repetitive, inconclusive chatter. This makes the play unnecessarily long.
One remedy is to reverse something said to Bérenger: “Weird people are not important; it’s the average that matters.” If that leads to becoming a rhino, then the reverse is the shield: the average is a trap so cultivate your inner and outer weirdo. Do a small thing every day that sets one apart from the herd. Start small, say with mis-matched socks, and build from there.
|Bérenger – Carol Louise Thompson||Director – Jess K Smith|
|Jean – Shawn Belyea||Scenery – Greg Carter|
|Daisy – Amy Mayes||Sound – Erin Bednarz|
|Dudard – Conner Neddersen||Choreography – Alyza Delpan-Monley|
|Lacy Campbell – Mrs. Boeuf||Lighting – Ryan A. Dunn|
|Brandon Felker – Logician||Masks – Zane Exactly|
|Jéhan Òsanyìn – Botard||Stage Managers – Catherine Blake Smith & Esme DeCoster|
|Shanna Allman – Housewife||Costumes – Adam Zopfi-Hulse|
|John Wray – Papillon|
|David S. Klein – Old Gentleman|
Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco, directed by Jess K. Smith. Runtime: 2.5 hours with one intermission. Strawberry Theatre Workshop. Mainstage Theatre at 12th Ave Arts, 1620 12th Ave, Capitol Hill. Thu-Fri-Sat and Mon, 7:30 pm. No performance Monday, Sept. 12. Tickets 1-800-838-3006 and online: strawshop.brownpapertickets.com. Runs Sept 8 through Oct 8.