All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Reactions to the rhinoceros are mixed. Some consider it a marvel, a wonder to behold in the midst of a small but bustling city. Some are curious as to how the rhinoceros came to be in the middle of a commercial street, especially of a town that has no zoo. One or two are so engaged in their own lives or intellectual pursuits, they note the rhinoceros with a cry of “Well, of all things!,” but are indifferent to it.
Debate ensues when a second rhinoceros charges by and some think it is a different rhinoceros while others insist it is the same rhinoceros running in the opposite direction. Tempers flare exponentially when the arguments turns to whether the rhino has two horns or one, and if a bi-corned rhinoceros is African or Asiatic.
It all seems like an exaggeration of the popular French sport of kerfuffle until playwright Eugène Ionesco puts a serious cast on comic matters in his cautionary and ultimately prescient play, “Rhinoceros,” being given a lively, evocative production by the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium through September 21 as part of Philadelphia’s FringeArts Festival.
Director Tina Brock approaches “Rhinoceros” as a standard comedy with a Gallic flair. Even in friendship, everyone carps at everyone. A grocery owner sneers at a parvenu shopper walking by with greens from another store, saying the woman has become too “stuck up” to patronize her shop. A café owner yells at his slow, inept help. In a brilliant example of Ionesco’s talent for lampooning people who are unjustifiably full of themselves, a logician explains the concept of syllogism to an eager acolyte but begins his paradigm with a false premise that leads to all sorts of pseudo-intellectual confusion. Jean, whose life and clothing are fastidiously arranged, berates his friend, Berenger, about a slovenliness he’s acquired and now exudes. Jean rails at Berenger for his tardiness, untidiness, constant yawning, and affect of looking as if he is always just past being inebriated. Which he is!
Though Jean and Berenger speak in a relatively civilized fashion, Brock keeps Jean’s belittling, Berenger’s defenses and calls for empathy, and various other uproars roiling at an entertainingly comic pace until the first rhinoceros upsets the proceedings and turns all inhabiting the French square to a unit of gawking onlookers.
Well, of all things!
More is going on than the absurdity Ionesco is famous for skillfully using as a tool to show the eccentric behavior humans usually couch with normality and civility. Amid the mundane conversations or philosophical expositions that invariably escalate into a hot disagreement about one thing or another is an insidious circumstance. People are disappearing, and rhinoceroses are rampantly destroying the town.
One woman brings the primary matter to light when she comes to her husband’s office, one in which work takes second place to constant bickering and debate, to report her husband cannot report as scheduled because he is not feeling well. Later, this same woman will recognize something in the eyes of one the proliferating rhinoceroses stampeding through the town and identify the creature as her husband.
Rhinoceroses are increasing. You see the progression as Jean, in Berenger’s presence, grows an ever-enlarging horn on his forehead and begins to garble his language, words giving way to snorts and bleats and trumpeting.
Ionesco is not just having fun in presenting a society in which people habitually morph into rhinoceroses. He has a purpose, and his metaphor is plain. He is commenting on the expedient conformity that leads to Nazism and other social or political movements in which people, at times against their will or nature, join en masse to victimize people who do not adhere to their group.
You see Jean’s metamorphosis up close. He has become angry at mankind. Something Berenger says cuts him so deep and offends him so much, he retreats to his bed in almost depressed isolation. By the time Berenger barges in to apologize and restore Jean to his precise, boulevardier ways, Jean has taken to damning the whole human race and to wallowing in a solitary fit of inconsolable pique. Slowly, but steadily, he loses his individuality and his bond with other humans particularly the contrite Berenger. He feels a bump on his forehead, one Berenger can see and touch. To facilitate the metamorphosis, Brock has Jean go into his bathroom, behind a closed door, to look at himself in the mirror. He emerges with a small papier-maché horn, in the center of his brow, just above his eyes. Subsequent exits and entrances show the horn getting bigger. At the same time, Jean’s skin is getting coarser and taking a gray-greenish tone. Soon a papier-maché mask shows a full transformation. Before long, Jean has relinquished any semblance of humanity and is part of a marauding herd that has taken over the town where he lives. Berenger and his friend, Daisy, who had prepared a conciliatory lunch for Jean, can only watch in wonder and terror.
“Rhinoceros,” unfolding slowly and comically, becomes a chilling reminder of the advent of blind conformity, and the attendant danger in non-conformity. Several people in Ionesco’s play resist the loss of their individual will, but almost all succumb to the engulfing tide before them. Berenger and Daisy are increasingly alone as beings that have not joined the rhinoceros ranks.
Think of how current Ionesco’s observations are in this time of puritanical political correctness, rampant moralism, partisan polarization, and unquestioning allegiance to extreme radicalism. People label other people. Friends and foes are judged based on political beliefs rather than personal character. As author Michael Smerconish points out, many in society are muzzled, loathe to utter things they know to be true, or to address issues squarely, in fear of being called some level of bigot, hater, or denier by self-appointed, but vocal, thought police. Others think their correctness gives them the right, or duty, to spout what they choose, however self-righteous or even benighted.
Easier and better to join the herd, as Fräulein Schneider says in her haunting song, “What Would You Do?,” from Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret.” Berenger, though flawed, depressed, disheveled, and stricken with ennui when we first see him, may prove to be only holdout amid those, who gladly or against their will, become part of an unthinking, rampaging mob that is easily led and leaves wreckage and heartbreak in its wake.
“Rhinoceros” makes you think. It exposes foolishness that passes for intellect or, worse, wisdom. It focuses on the pettiness of most disagreements while commenting the penchant people have for talking about a problem rather than working to solve it.
By remaining comic, almost cartoon-like, in tone and presentation until a point when the vastly outnumbered Berenger and Daisy have to confront the onslaught of horned, powerful pachyderms among them, “Rhinoceros” entertainingly camouflages Ionesco’s most sober themes until there is no escaping their importance or consequence. The playwright is showing devolution into a world that is so rigidly uniform, it goes beyond being brutal to becoming bestial.
Brock is careful about how her production sets up events to come. She gives no hint of the monumental mayhem about to erupt as she has Jean and Berenger, the logician and his listener, office colleagues, or neighborhood flirts and gossips go about their commonplace bickering.
Everyone, except perhaps Berenger and the logician, has a complaint about everyone else in the town, and the logician is a blowhard who preeningly presents his supposed erudition to one who will eagerly accept twaddle as truth and be intimidated by it. Neither Ionesco nor Brock shows a congenial or affable society. Yet the way people and characters carry themselves pretends to a well-meaning civility. For the most, denizens in the town square behave discreetly, only Jean and Berenger having an obvious row, and only Jean being nasty and critical while Berenger admits to the shortcomings Jean describes and attempts to lighten the strained feelings between him and his friend.
In other words, Ionesco is showing typical people in a typical town, only heightening their conversation to be more real and more noticeable as either amiable chatter or petty caviling.
The entry of the rhinoceros turns this amorphous bunch into a group. That unity lasts only until the discussions about the rhinos’ breed and number of horns emerge. Then it’s carping as usual.
Except the rhinoceroses don’t go away. They take over and force those who remain human to contend with them and challenge the authority they have attained by sheer numbers, let alone superior strength no lone human could overcome.
In dealing with an explosion of rhinoceroses, Brock has to contend with some spatial issues. While Erica Hoelscher’s set is versatile, it doesn’t have a lot of dimension. So when the first large aggregation of rhinoceroses is encountered, the group in which the woman is certain she spots her husband, we have to believe they can run level with, and poke their heads, through a second story window where Berenger, Daisy, and others are half regarding them in awe and half cowering from their overpowering force.
Because we are engaged enough to want to see exactly how Ionesco plans to advance his story, we go along with seeing rhinoceroses in high elevations and having people transform to pachyderms in small rooms that make you wonder how the animal is going to find its way out to join its confreres in the streets.
Brock opts for stylized characterization and line readings over realistic portrayals, but Ethan Lipkin, as Berenger comes off as quite authentically human. He keeps the character down-to-earth in a way that appeals and makes you want Berenger to succeed as he tries to reconcile with Jean or begin a romantic liaison with Daisy.
Brock keeps her production brisk. Its comic, satiric tone seems to make the rhinoceroses into an alarming lark until their ferocity and encroachment can no longer be ignored. It is horrifying when Daisy speaks alluringly of the freedom the rhinoceroses have and says she prefers their ardor and energy to human weakness. We, like Berenger, fear she is on the brink of capitulation when she declares love “morbid” and sneers at Berenger when he tries to slap her into her senses.
Brock’s light touch in the beginning makes it all the more poignant and sobering when one realizes conformity will claim the reluctant, like one of Berenger’s colleagues, and the seemingly immune like Daisy.
In the end, Berenger is like Winston Churchill vowing not to succumb to the pressure to relinquish his humanity and to fight to restore the urbane, if rancorous way things were, and to maintain his individuality at all costs. The jaded man we meet at the café in Scene One turns into a crusader with a purpose.
Ethan Lipkin always emphasizes the reasonable and affable side of Berenger (a part originated in London by Laurence Olivier and played on Broadway by Eli Wallach). He maintains his calm when attacked by an aggressively agitated Jean. He retains his humor and generally good nature during heated discussions at his workplace. He tries to offer love and affection to Daisy as an alternative to falling in step with the beasts.
The sweetness and fairness with which Lipkin endows Berenger makes the character a genuine, if unlikely, hero. We depend on his decency and human empathy to prevail, just as people caught in dictatorial situations expect common sense and the rule of law to prevent political calamity.
The actor makes you worry about Berenger when he thinks he isn’t good enough to approach Daisy for a date. He makes you want to jump to his defense when Jean’s attack become vicious and out of control. He makes you root that Berenger can hold out against all temptation and all coercion to join the herd of rhinoceroses demolishing his town.
Steve Lippe is quite entertaining as the logician, one who the audience sees immediately is wrong in his empiric explanation of logic but one who you know immediately will never doubt he is right or question the faultiness of his reasoning.
Lippe is a pedantic man about town who expounds his philosophy while strolling with friends who wait for the logician’s every word. It’s a good portrayal of a self-conscious show off of a man made better by Lippe’s never giving any indication of self-consciousness as a performer.
Paul McElwee is dapper and conveys great competence and confidence as Berenger’s colleague, Dudard, who talks about another colleague who chooses to become a rhinoceros out of community spirit triumphing over his anarchic inclinations.
Kirsten Quinn combines common sense and innocence as Daisy, Bob Schmidt adds some edge as an argumentative office worker named Botard, and Jerry Rudasill scores as a rigid boss.
David Stanger exudes impassioned vehemence as the meticulous and critical Jean.
Stanger conveys a creature of ego who holds himself as the standard by which other men, specifically Berenger, should model their lives. The actor does a fine slow burn as he realizes Berenger would rather shrug off than change his undisciplined ways, and he becomes almost apoplectic when he can’t make Berenger agree with him about a relatively inconsequential point.
It is up to Stanger to demonstrate how the metamorphosis from human to rhinoceros is brought about, and the actor does a fine job with his chore.
In addition to directing, Tina Brock created the sound design she herself called a “commotion” as she told the audience during a pre-show speech the noise onstage would be so great, it makes no difference if they silence cell phones or not. The roar of running footsteps and choruses of trumpeting is alternatively frightening and comic.
Erica Hoelscher’s set was quite flexible, allowing for street scenes, a work scene, and glimpses of various apartments. I was particularly taken with the calligraphy with which “Epicerie” and “Café” were written on shop windows (tres français). Hoelscher also did a fine job with the production’s costumes. All the men, except Berenger, looked impeccably clothed, groomed, and ready for a day on the town square or at work.
“Rhinoceros,” produced by Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium, runs through Sunday, September 21 at the Skybox of the Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $25 to $22 and can be obtained by calling 215-285-0472 or by visiting www.rhinoceros.bpt.me.