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This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the August 23, 2000

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All

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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

success

made more so by the acclaimed performances of Zero Mostel, Eli

Wallach,

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

shocking.

Forty years ago, Germans in their homeland were still reeling from

the dehumanizing effects of Hitler’s Nazi regime. However, with

evidence

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

consequences

of conformity. In this case the result is a dated, talky, and somewhat

tedious production.

"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

psychotic

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

townsfolk

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

liberal

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

Berenger.

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

moments

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

something

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,

Ionesco’s

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

manager,

and Roy Cockrum, as the Logician, who stumbles on his own words.

Perhaps

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

hoof forward.

— Simon Saltzman

Rhinoceros, New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, F.M.

Kirby Theater, Drew University, Madison, 973-408-5600. $26 to $36.

Performances continue through Sunday, August 27.


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