When college students whisper conspiratorially about a friend who has become drastically larger, they might be referencing the infamous “freshman 15.” When the citizens in Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” gossip, they are referring to many of their friends and neighbors, who have transmogrified into two-ton horned herbivores at an astonishing rate.
The 1960 absurdist play is not a science fiction romp about shape-shifting but instead a fantastical allegory about the dangers of conformity. Our embarrassingly alcoholic but sympathetic hero Berenger (Alexander Borinsky ’08) is the staunch holdout against the frightening trend. Joined at first by his friend Jean (David Friedlander ’05) and romantic interest Daisy (Anna Rebek ’07), the somewhat spineless Berenger finds himself increasingly alone, both physically and emotionally, following the rapid rhinocerozation. Given to spewing geysers of rhetoric and whiny “why-me-isms,” Berenger implicitly supplies the outline of topics each audience member should consider.
The script, brimming with philosophical questions and teeming with non sequiturs, is a high-maintenance girlfriend, demanding the viewer’s attention and interpretation. Without engaging actively with the material and at least attempting to decipher the significance of each puzzling element of the play, audience members will quickly lose interest. Surely realizing this, the cast and crew of this Ezra Stiles Sudler Fund project work hard to sustain the viewer’s attention by means of clever tactics. The set, designed by Haley Fox ’07, is popping with color and deftly captures the provincial French setting with chalkboard “Bonne Journee!” messages and wooden patisserie facades. Costume designer Eunice Cho’s dresses and suits are informed by the same love of color that made the set charming, but the gaudiness hurts the production in this incidence.
Sitting in a café, Jean coaches Berenger to follow the former’s natty lead in order to be taken more seriously. The docile Berenger, accordingly schooled by that bit of sartorial advice, takes Jean in from his striped purple tie to his loud two-tone wingtips and sighs, “You always look immaculate.” The audience is left to ponder whether the comment is meant to be an indication of Berenger’s pandering simplicity, an attempt at humor within a ponderous play, or some other heavy-hitting ironic statement that eludes this reviewer.
Similarly puzzling is the use of females to play male leads with only very minimal attempts to obscure the cast member’s true gender. For example, the character known as “Old Gentleman,” played by Katie Reynolds ’07, sports a foot-long cascade of lustrous red hair. The fact that that actress wears her hair in a ponytail does little to indicate to the audience the gender she is assuming. The audience, deprived of a courtesy “monsieur” or a casual bandying about of the pronoun “he” in reference to the Old Gentleman or the other ambiguously gendered character Mr. Botard (Eleanor Liu ’08), is vulnerable to becoming more entangled in the cast list than the actual story.
In one such case, the Old Gentleman lecherously strokes the Housewife’s (Clare Barron ’08) chest after her cat has been brutally trampled by a crowd of newly minted, ex-people rhinos. While eager audience members rack their brains for a viable interpretation of the unexpected Sapphic vignette, concurrent action races on upstage at the speed of a racing herd.
But if several of the more whimsical elements of the production obscure the play’s message, others not only bolster it but also add significantly to its ability to entertain. Music director John Hansen-Brevetti ’07 uses a synthesizer and vocals to create realistic phone rings, the crescendo of racing rhinoceros hooves, and the partially humanoid grunts of the beasts.
The two choreographed accompanied scene changes alternate between providing comic relief and raising complex questions about the level of anthropomorphism in the rhinoceroses. The first, entitled the “Fuhrer and the Cat,” features the Housewife and the Old Gentleman after they have undergone transformation. Their pachyderm pas-de-deux seems tongue-in-cheek, but the actresses’ praiseworthy immersions into the role of swine creatures and accompanying earnest expressions make the audience feel nervous, not relieved, to laugh.
During midterms week, students may not have much desire to watch a play that demands the high degree of audience attention and contemplation “Rhinoceros” requires. And while some elements of the play falter and cloud its intellectual landscape, wise directing decisions make the production highly entertaining to those desiring an experience with less philosophical intensity. Follow the herd to this absurdist play, but don’t take it too seriously.