Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, written in 1959, was produced on Broadway in 1961 with a powerhouse cast that included Eli Wallach, Zero Mostel, Anne Jackson, Morris Carnovsky, and Jean Stapleton. It garnered some glowing reviews and a few caveats. Many of us theatre types who went to college to become actors, directors and designers encountered the play as a text in classes like Modern European Drama. Or sometimes scenes were performed in weekly studio hours. But full productions seem to be a rarity, or so they seem to this commentator. So it was with great relish that I attended the opening of Pacific Resident Theatre’s sterling production. Rhinoceros, at last!
Briefly, the play is set in a small French town in the middle of the last century. The opening act shows a bustling square near mid-day on a Sunday morning in a hubbub of activity with a grocer selling produce, a café serving drinks. People come and go. A high class lady saunters through with a Persian cat over her arm. A charming busker in white face (Melinda West) plays her accordion in classic French style, music that calls to mind the sound track of Amélie. Two friends meet at the café, Berenger (Keith Stevenson), a disheveled man, bleary eyed from too much drink and not enough sleep, and Jean (Alex Fernandez), the distinct opposite of Berenger, who appears neat as a pin with pressed suit, tie, and well-shined shoes. Jean berates Berenger for his slovenliness and lack of ambition, which his friend endures because he is fond of the tightly wound guy, despite his hauteur.
Suddenly, the thundering sound of heavy hoof beats is heard coming from the back of the auditorium and surging toward the stage, then veering off and disappearing behind the set (thank you Chris Moscatiello for the superb sound design). It is, of course, a charging rhino invisible to the audience. The scene turns to chaos as people hide or crouch or flee. A tray of drinks gets flung into the air, tables and chairs are overturned as people crouch and cringe. The citizens slowly recover some composure and discuss heatedly what they saw or think they saw, when it all happens again. This first act of PRT’s production is as good as it gets, with intricately choreographed movement, executed with clock work precision by a cast that goes for comedy in high style.
After an intermission, the second act takes place in Berenger’s workplace, a legal office, where there is much discussion of the event of the previous day. Were there two rhinos, or only one that came back? Was the rhino a one-horned beast or two-horned. If there were two, was one one-horned and the other two-horned? Does that make them Asian rhinos or African rhinos? There is a realist skeptic, Dotard (Peter Elbling), a union atheist, who pooh-poohs the whole idea. A co-worker, Dudard (Jeff Lorch), takes a non-committal stand, which is no stand at all. The office secretary, Daisy (Carole Weyers), a straight-laced charmer who has an eye for Berenger who has an eye for her, endures with resentment the casual sexism of the boss, Mr. Papillon (Brad Greenquist), who gives her a condescending pat on the butt. The office dissolves into turmoil when an absent employee turns up (off stage) as a rhinoceros. The disease of rhinocerism is spreading.
The play comes out of the Twentieth Century stew of war and horror, with the rise of Nazism, communism, virulent anti-Semitism, and more, with people who just go along with whatever escalating circumstances prevail until they simply can’t because they are dead, or hopeless. The giddy gaiety of the opening act gradually gives way to existential despair by the final act, with only Berenger (the superb Mr. Stevenson) left to cry out, “I am the last man left, and I am staying that way until the end. I am not capitulating!”
Pacific Resident Theatre mounts a stunning production of Rhinoceros, with a sterling cast performing at the peak of their abilities. Director Guillermo Cienfuegos keeps the pace crisp and the action insightful. David Mauer’s scenic design, with lighting by Justin Preston, is a wonder, with one particular set change garnering enthusiastic applause. Christine Cover Ferro’s costume design reflects the period in high style while supporting character. The creative staff includes choreographer Myrna Gawryn, prop designer Dan Cole, and hair design by Danielle Spencer.
Rhinoceros runs through September 10 at Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd. in Venice, California.