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This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the August 23, 2000
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All
Drama Review: `Rhinoceros’
How many 20th-century playwrights are there whose words
are considered incendiary, controversial, provocative, and frightening
enough to instigate an audience to riot? At the moment, I can only
think of one: Rumanian-born French dramatist Eugene Ionesco. Ionesco’s
plays, "The Bald Soprano" and "The Chairs," caused
havoc at their European premieres.
After a decade as a leader in the theatrical avant-garde movement
known popularly as the "theater of the absurd," Ionesco had
his first Broadway success in 1961 with "Rhinoceros," a
made more so by the acclaimed performances of Zero Mostel, Eli
and Anne Jackson. Now the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival has revived
the play, under the direction of Paul Mullins, running at the Kirby
Theater in Madison through Sunday, August 27. Although this show is
unlikely to cause a riot, that’s because time and our own thickened
skins have rendered the play’s message and its metaphors less than
Forty years ago, Germans in their homeland were still reeling from
the dehumanizing effects of Hitler’s Nazi regime. However, with
of political fanaticism becoming visible now — as it was then
— in virtually every part of the world, Ionesco’s play certainly
has elements of shock. For today’s audience, particularly those under
35, Ionesco expounds too obviously and portentously on the grave
of conformity. In this case the result is a dated, talky, and somewhat
"Rhinoceros" shows us people transformed, one by one, into
what Ionesco calls "the most stupid and the most ferocious animal
in the world — and also the ugliest." Watching the people
around you turning into horrible, destructive beasts under the
influence of a mass ideology is exactly what happens, as Berenger,
the only character in the play with child-like common sense, becomes
aware of the evil being perpetrated around him. "Rhinoceros"
is about the survival of one weak lonely man against the voracious
desensitized humanity that surrounds him. It remains a bold mixture
of the horrifying and the farcical.
What does one make of the rhinoceros that is seen charging down the
street of a small French town on an otherwise tranquil Sunday morning?
Neither Berenger (Paul Niebanck), a clerk, nor his arrogant friend,
Jean (Andrew Weems), can understand the phenomenon, as they argue
whether they saw a rhino with one horn or two, or was it two rhinos,
or whether it had escaped from a zoo or a circus, or whether the beast
was of the African or Asiatic variety. It isn’t long before the
become involved in the dispute in front of a cafe. Of course, it also
isn’t long before the townsfolk themselves are turning into the one
or two-horned beasts.
Mullen’s staging turns out to be more literal than
in its treatment of the metamorphosis from man to beast. Nevertheless,
it is a stunning sight to see the previously rather effete and prissy
Jean make the startling conversion into a bellowing, hoof-pounding
rhino, right before our eyes, and in front of the dumbfounded
As startling as such a scene is, it also points out the problem with
the director’s decision to have the herd appear in the climactic
wearing cardboard, horned rhino heads. More disturbing and scary by
far would be to have Berenger surrounded by the marauding townsfolk
who, though now rhinos, still look like people.
The phenomenon of impressionable minds acquiring thick hides is
that only Berenger, a lonely tormented man ("My hair hurts,"
"I just can’t get used to life"), seems to see. Refusing to
run with the herd, and hoping to keep his dignity (though it is openly
reviled by his fellow workers and friends), Berenger becomes the last
bastion of rational thinking, deserted in the end even by his girl
friend Daisy (Katie MacNichol).
Looking for the most part like he has never had a good night’s sleep,
Niebanck is convincing as the pitiable Berenger who remains true to
the end as the embodiment of a steadfast individualist. MacNichol
is fine and frightening as a kind of vapid Barbie Doll who succumbs
to the call of the jungle: the sounds of the rampaging rhinos that
enter the apartment where she and Berenger have just passed through
"20 years of marriage in four minutes." Weems may not have
the rotund Perissodactyl-like capabilities of Mostel, but his more
fashion-plated exterior is humorously transferred to the snorting,
grunting demands of his newly-acquired bestiality.
Surprisingly for those who might expect the play to be top heavy with
moralizing political propaganda, such as one finds in Bertolt Brecht
and Clifford Odets, "Rhinoceros" is good for more than a few
laughs. Embracing the visual aspects of his themes as artfully and
as craftily as his comrade in the avant-garde Samuel Beckett,
dramatic conceits are certainly original in style.
Noteworthy among a large supporting cast are Helmar Augustus Cooper,
as Mr. Papillon, the horny (as in lecherous not in rhino) office
and Roy Cockrum, as the Logician, who stumbles on his own words.
if Mullen’s staging had a more loony, rather than lumbering (it’s
those darned rhinos) edge, the play would not seem as tedious as its
does, especially in the second act. The impressionistic monochromatic
settings by Michael Schweikard also had the task of lumbering from
one place to another. Look at it this way: they all put their best
— Simon Saltzman
Kirby Theater, Drew University, Madison, 973-408-5600. $26 to $36.
Performances continue through Sunday, August 27.
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