Oh, if only we didn’t need another “Rhinoceros”!
When Eugene Ionesco, a Romania-born playwright who became a major force in French and world theater in the years following World War II, produced “Rhinoceros” in 1959, he was, so scholars tell us, responding to Romanian anti-Semitism movements of his youth, the French collaboration with the Nazis in the war, and the rush by French intellectuals to join the Communist Party in the war’s aftermath. And thus his tale of a small French town whose citizens begin transforming into rhinoceros and rampaging through the streets: “Look! A rhinoceros!” they cry and “Well, of all things!” they harrumph as around them co-workers and friends head off to join the herd.
In our America, where in everything from politics to phone apps, we rush to dehumanizing extremes, embracing the person, cause, or object with the latest and greatest momentum, Catastrophic Theatre’s current production could not be more relevant.
And what a production it is. In its first two acts, the comic exaggerations could not be more alive, more on target, or more funny only to have the roaring of the audience replaced in a decidedly darker act three by the trampling and trumpeting of the unseen mass of rhinoceros that become an ever-present background music to the oozing away of even the desire to remain human.
It’s a play that requires brilliantly over the top performances by the characters headed for their animal transformation, and each of these actors delivers-especially Kyle Sturdivant (Jean) who waltzes on stage in Act One as an eye-rolling Oliver Hardy, the know-it-all friend of George Parker’s Berenger. In Act Two, without the aid of special effects or make-up, he becomes a raging rhino who is all unthinking force. For Sturdivant it is a physical transformation that throws off restraint and just about everything else. He is clown who before our eyes scratches and growls and rips, creating the sensation of a beast turned loose, a train run amok: “Look! A rhinoceros!”
But the play’s true focus is Berenger-the everyman who, while seeing himself as a weak failure, carries the burden of humanity. Parker plays him all aquiver-especially in his encounter with the transforming Jean-and never makes him anything but the frightened, unprepared soul he is. Thus he works as the perfect foil to his friends and co-workers whom he watches slough off all that separates them from their lower nature. In the final scene, alone and collapsed in a chair, Parker manages to communicate the final openness of the play. His words are defiant, but the audience-as they should be-is left to wonder if he can live them, left to ponder if the world will inevitably belong to the rhinoceros. After all, this is the man who opened the play bemoaning, “I just can’t get used to life!” Who can?
Directing the play, Tamarie Cooper creates a wondrously balanced production-the image of Disney’s hippos in tutus keeps coming to mind. She makes full use of Ionesco’s absurd premise and the all too real flaws of human nature. And it’s a balance she uses to open the play with two ongoing but narratively disconnected scenes in the opening act as well as in the play’s cartoonish minor characters and psychologically real major ones. It’s also a balance she lets slip away as the play’s final scenes slide closer to despair.
She also makes full use of Catastrophic’s tight stage and Ryan McGettigan’s gauzy, shifting walls to create a wide range of spaces that press in the direction of intimacy: from the French street, to an office, to Jean’s and then Berenger’s homes. With an amazing sound design by Shawn St. John and creative lighting by Hudson Davis, she gets the most impact possible with limited means and creates a world that keeps just out of eyesight the rampage of nature that is all around.
The rest of the cast aids the major players and the ideas of the play admirably. In particular Jeanne Harris as Daisy, Berenger’s love interest, Joel Sandel as the well-degreed Dudard, Noel Bowers as the vociferous Botard, and Abraham Zeus Zapata as the office manager Mr. Papillion all set up simple but clear types for Berenger to bounce off of.
And bounce he does-along with the audience-right into Ionesco’s far from absurd world. It’s the one spewing out daily on CNN and Fox with its insanity undisguised. Arm yourself; head to this production; and before you know it, you’ll be shouting, “Look! A rhinoceros!” wherever you go.
Catastophic Theatre’s production of “Rhinoceros” plays at MATCH in Houston’s midtown through Dec. 10.
Robert Donahoo writes theater reviews for HERE and is a professor at Sam Houston State University.