by JK Clarke
There hasn’t been a more appropriate time in quite a while to stage Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, and The Seeing Place Theater is to be commended for doing so. Born of Ionesco’s experience growing up in 1930s Romania during a period of ultra-nationalism and, eventually, Naziism, Rhinoceros pits the will of the individual against collectivist mentality. With the re-emergence of fear-based bigotry and über-patriotism here and throughout Europe, it’s an important moment to examine the fallout (and the ultimate, gross human rights violations) of these ideologies. If we can’t reexamine our history through our arts and literature, then there’s little to hope for.
Rhinoceros begins simply enough: two friends Berenger (Brandon Walker, who also directs) and Jean (Logan Keeler) meet at a cafe. Soon after they sit, there’s a rumble and the café patrons witness what appears to be a rhinoceros charging across the town square. The ensuing confusion is interrupted only by the passing of another rhinoceros. This one tramples a cat belonging to a housewife (Carla Torgrimson, who wears well the countenance of a befuddled, grieving cat owner) who wanders into the café, cradling her mortally fractured feline. The outraged patrons set to discussing what must be done. Surely rhinoceroses should not be allowed in town (though no one can figure out how they got there), they aver. But, the conversation dissolves into how many horns the rhinos had and whether they were Asian or African. A logician (Emily Newhouse) unfeelingly declares to the grieving housewife that “all cats are mortal. One must accept that.” There is clearly a misalignment of priorities in the café. By the next act it is revealed there are more rhinoceroses in town, that some town folk have transformed into them. Despite these outrageous circumstances, a group of office workers try to go on with day-to-day work life until one of the beasts destroys their staircase, trapping them. With a “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude, eventually everyone in the village turns into a rhinoceros, except Berenger and Daisy (Autumn Mirassou), the girl he desperately loves. He struggles to keep her from turning, too.
One could hardly find a more enthusiastic group of actors than this cast, but a good deal of their dialog is unhearable, particularly within the (poorly executed) theatrical device of characters talking over one another, which only reinforces that some sections of the play (particularly the last act) are needlessly redundant. While the preponderance of banal utterances is integral to the piece (“Well, of all things!” is repeated over twenty times, for effect), text and word choice (it’s translated anyway—from the original French by Derek Prouse) are not central to the piece. An hour of the two hour forty-five minute play could have been cut without impacting the story at all.
And although the signals of anti-semitism, racism and anti-intellectual bias (“I never believe journalists. They’re all liars,” one character declares) are plainly displayed in the text, director Brandon Walker doesn’t emphasize these issues. Rather, the focus here (and in general for The Seeing Place Theater—they write in their mission statement—in this, their seventh season) is on the concept of “self” and events that challenge that notion. Considering the rise of racial strife as well the extreme racially and culturally exclusionary proposals being touted in this year’s presidential race, it seems like downplaying that vital part of Rhinoceros is a missed opportunity. One must, nonetheless, appreciate this rare opportunity to see this important and especially relevant play.
Rhinoceros. Through August 7 at the Lynn Redgrave Theater (45 Bleecker Street, between Lafayette and The Bowery). www.TheSeeingPlace.org
Photos: Justin Hoch