Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros,” a classic example of Theatre of the Absurd, is a thinly veiled allegory for the unexpected and frightening rise of fascism in communities where it seems most unlikely to occur. The seemingly normal citizens of a small town in France begin, on an otherwise typical Sunday morning, to transform into rhinoceroses.
Berenger, an intelligent, gentle alcoholic, is breakfasting with his pompous friend Gene when the first rhinoceros appears. How, they wonder, could it happen here? Perhaps it escaped from the zoo? But there is no zoo. Perhaps it came to town from the surrounding marshes? But there are no marshes. As they debate the subject, another rhinoceros appears. The next morning, when Berenger goes to his job at the newspaper office, a third rhinoceros appears and this one is recognized by his wife!
Of course, the situation is absurd, disturbing, and funny. It is so funny, in fact, that the audience laughter is non-stop from beginning to end. You may leave the Geary theater with an aching belly, gasping for breath. The night I saw it, when the intermission arrived, I heard numerous exclamations of “wow” from all around the theatre. That was an appropriate reaction.
When the play first appeared in the 1950s, it was not difficult to see the parallels between the rise of the rhinos and the rise of the Nazis ,followed by the conquest of Paris and the transformation of some of the French to Nazi collaborators, or, if not that, folks who simply tried to get along and not resist too strenuously.
Ionesco’s uncut script runs for well over two hours and includes many subsidiary details and various political and intellectual arguments, along with the main story. Wisely, the Tony-winning director of this production, Frank Galati, asked for and was given permission to cut it down to the bare bones. At A.C.T., “Rhinoceros” runs for a mere 90 minutes, including an intermission. This works beautifully: it is, after all, a single metaphor philosophically, and as a comedy, a single joke. Today’s audiences are so familiar with the political implications, that much of the exposition is unnecessary. By keeping it simple, Galati is able to achieve a kind of perfection in the best moments.
As the happy drunkard, Berenger, David Breitbarth is the perfect foil for blustery big boy Gene (played brilliantly by Matt DeCaro). In the play’s deservedly most famous scene, Gene transforms before our eyes into a rhinoceros, simultaneously tempted to give in to the transformation, and trying desperately to resist. It builds slowly and is a great challenge and a great opportunity for an excellent and versatile comic actor like Matt DeCaro. Mr. DeCaro is truly an actor’s actor, one who has performed with distinction in most of the leading regional theatres across the United States, as well as in numerous TV series and films. In a role that could too easily go too far over the top, he remains grounded and convincing. The result is a surreal, absurdist performance, that makes the impossible seem possible. It is scary, and, at the same time offers some of the funniest sequences you’re ever likely to see on stage.
An exceptionally brilliant touch is the incorporation of Piaf’s famous anthem, “No Regrets” performed by the extraordinary Rona Figueroa as a townswoman, Daisy. Figueroa’s acting is excellent and her vocal channeling of Piaf is uncannily good. (It ought to be. Her musical credits listed in the program are remarkably impressive.) The presence of this song in this play can be even more fully appreciated if one knows the history of this particular ballad. It is a story worth reading (note the last paragraph of the section titled “Background” and follow the links to fully appreciate).
In summary: Funny? Yes! Well acted? Yes! Relevant to the times: Yes! Yes! Yes! Should you go: Yes!
“Rhinoceros” continues at A.C.T. through June 23, 2019. For further information, click here.
Rating: **** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
“Rhinoceros” by Eugene Ionesco, translated by Derek Prouse. Presented by American Conservatory Theater. Director: Frank Galati. Scenic and Costume Designer: Robert Perdziola. Lighting Designer: Chris Lundahl. Sound Designer and Original Music: Joseph Cerqua. Movement Coach: Danyon Davis.
Berenger: David Breitbarth. Gene: Matt DeCaro. Daisy: Rona Figueroa. Mrs. Boeuf: Trish Mulholland. Marcel: Göran Norquist. Mr. Papillon: Danny Scheie. Collette: Lauren Spencer. Mr. Dudard: Teddy Spencer. Mr. Botard: Jomar Togatac. Townspeople: Millie Brooks, Dan Hiatt, Trish Holland, Göran Norquist, Danny Schie, Lauren Spencer, Teddy Spencer. Jomar Tagatac.