Review of Rhinoceros
by Gary Gonser, SFBATCC

By Eugène Ionesco
Translated by Derek Prouse
Directed by Romula Torres Carroll

For tickets / schedule :
The Belrose Theatre
San Rafael, CA
Birdbath Theatres

RUN: July 7 – 22, 2017
RATING: 3.5 of 5 stars

(July 15, 2017)

Birdbath Theatres - Rhinocerus

Photo by Robin Jackson

We are living in a time of split affiliations. Different groups are focusing on philosophies that are mutually exclusive. Arguments from either side are deflected by the belief that belonging to a group is more important than the truth.  More importantly, “truth” becomes relative to the group, and the rhinoceros flourishes on the street.

Rhinoceros was written in 1959 by Eugène Ionesco as a post World War II “theatre of the absurd” reflection of the group acceptance and mob hysteria that accompanied the rise of the Nazi party in Europe. More importantly to Ionesco, the Vichy government of France survived because of group acceptance and mob hysteria.

Existence is a lonely place by definition. We are born and die alone, and we long to belong to a group that loves us during our life, even if we don’t believe in the same things the group believes in. Enter the rhinoceros.  t is an animal that is thought to rush into the fray, running over plants and animals and people. Ionesco uses the rhinoceros as symbolic of the “different” and destructive behavior of the mob.

Birdbath Theatres - Rhinocerus

Photo by Robin Jackson

In Rhinoceros, low brows, high brows, bureaucrats and intellectuals, rich and poor, succumb to the need to believe in the group philosophy of the rhinoceros. Slowly, the entire town questions, and then believes in the rhinoceros mentality roaming the city streets.

This new theatre group, Birdbath Theatres, chose a challenging play to present to their community. Characteristically French in the topics and tone, the play develops the humorous incidents in the beginning that set the stage for the serious impact at the end of the play.

Director Romulo Carroll brings out the best in the actors to move the simplest of interactions into riveting theatre. I was struck by the animation of David Abrams and Spencer Acton while they launched into their roles of Jean and Berenger, respectively, with gusto and over the top enthusiasm.  The talent of these actors is amazing.

Birdbath Theatres - Rhinocerus

Photo by Robin Jackson

Abrams (as Jean) is the righteous, dedicated bureaucrat attempting to make the case for a good life without the drinking and carousing of other citizens.  He is the first person to see the rhinoceros running through the streets. Ultimately, he pulls away from his traditional society and joins the majority viewpoint. His physical transformation at the end of act 2 is truly amazing.

Acton (as Berenger) is the good natured hedonist who drinks and likes life, but longs for the ideal and disciplined life described to him by Jean. His watches his friends change one by one into the other camp, but cannot help them. As they transform, Berenger remains the sole holdover to the life he knows and loves.

Andrew Byars (as Mr. Papillion) enjoys a good syllogism with friends to prove that a dog is a cat, but he slowly comes to believe it, at the expense of the cat, who is trampled by a raging rhinoceros. Emma Farman (as Daisy) plays the straight receptionist starkly drawn against the background of the absurd behavior consuming the other citizens in town.

Abrams and Acton help to make the play enjoyable with their facial expressions, enthusiasm, body language and extreme reactions to the developments along the way. The timing was done well in acts 1 and 2 to keep me on the edge of my seat, anticipating the resolution in act 3.

However necessary act 3 is to illustrate the actual emotional transformations taking place in the rest of the town, its length and understatement were disappointing. At one high point, Farman and Acton work through the arguments for and against love and rhinoceroses, finally coming to an emotional catharsis of their relationship. Acton summarizes the encounter by saying to the audience: “in just a few minutes we have gone through twenty-five years of married life!”

The other villagers, Jenny Donohue, Terra Schamun, Jack Sabido, McKay Williams, Nat Davis and Jarrod Ackerley all portrayed their characters well and distinctly. This reviewer would have enjoyed reading their bios, which were absent in the program. Their experience in theatre certainly helped them with their good supporting roles.

The set is simple and effective, shifting between the marketplace, Jean’s bedroom and Berenger’s bedroom. Costumes were period French and mostly appropriate to French fashion and class.

Humor is always present under the surface, with perfect “off the cuff” comments designed to release the building dramatic energy into audience laughter relief. This production is a good study in classic “absurd” theatre.