Review of Rhinoceros

By Eugène Ionesco
Translated by Derek Prouse
Directed by Rómula 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 - Rhinocerous

Photo by Robin Jackson

Rhinoceros has a double meaning; the exterior story is of a quiet country village interrupted by charging animals, as the townspeople slowly transform into rhinoceroses. Underneath is an examination of the herd mentality of humanity—how the majority can sway an entire population into belief systems they would otherwise never accept. The concept is fascinating, however the play itself suffers from a disjointed presentation. The first act is a playful, lighthearted comedy, filled with colorful characters and nimble writing, such as parallel conversations bouncing back and forth across the stage. It transitions through a surrealist phase, adeptly acted by David Abrams, into pure post-apocalyptic fantasy reminiscent of The Birds. Each piece is of itself an excellent play, but it does not have a unified structure and feel.

Written in 1959, the vintage worldview shows through with some jarring moments of racism and domestic abuse that were acceptable at the time, but are in poor taste to modern audiences. It draws on the German occupation of France and the reaction of citizens during World War II, demonstrating how the human mind is capable of shifting to protect itself, find companionship, and be accepted as normal. A thread of discussion regarding what is abnormal and what is normal leads many characters to conclude that perhaps becoming a rhinoceros is the new acceptable behavior, even though it disgusted them at first.

What holds the play together is the friendship between Berenger (Spencer Acton) and Jean (David Abrams). Jean is a self-absorbed dandy who is easily excitable and tries to hide his longing to belong behind a pompous demeanor. Down to earth, amiable, and charmingly rumpled, Berenger clings to his humanity—the good and the bad—perhaps inspired by the Maquis guerilla movement.

Birdbath Theatres - Rhinocerous

Photo by Robin Jackson

The cast is clearly enjoying themselves, and each actor has a chance to shine, from Nat (Krima) Davis as the Fireman toting a miniature ladder to Andrew Byars as the Logician, poking exaggerated fun at philosophers’ propensity to long discussions of definitions rather than actual facts. There is an attention to detail for each character, such as a brief homage to the painting American Gothic in the background of a scene toward the end of the second act. The visuals in this play are charged with emotion; I was particularly moved by the transparent backdrop being clawed at by a herd of animals during the final act.

Wyatt E. Dunkerly’s costume designs for the men were well executed, and created powerful images when juxtaposed with rhinoceros heads. I was impressed by the staging, which used the audience, piano and characters hanging out of windows for an interactive experience. The scene change transitions were barely noticeable, since entertaining vignettes filled the time and delved deeper into characterization. Genevieve Schaad creates a soundscape of the jungle, huffing rhinoceroses, smashing glass and chiming bells.

Rhinoceros at The Belrose is a high energy production of an intellectually stimulating French play. Although it runs rather long and could use some tightening of direction, it is both amusing and thought provoking with an excellent cast.