Thursday, August 4, 2016

RHINOCEROS: Antic Production of Classic Absurdist Play by The Seeing Place Theater

Brandon Walker and Logan Keeler
Photo by Justin Hoch

It takes a brave theater company to tackle Eugène Ionesco, that great and unruly master of the absurd whose plays soar with brilliant flights of imagination but also have a propensity for plunging into long expanses of rambling philosophy. That’s Ionesco: the theatrical manifestation of Icarus.

This was true of the 2009 Broadway production of Exit the King that featured a mesmerizing performance by Geoffrey Rush, a confusing one by Susan Sarandon, and, yes, transcendent feats of poetic aerialism coupled with lengthy sections of stultifying earthbound prose. It also was true of the 2014 Theatre for a New Audience production of The Killer that offered a gripping performance by Michael Shannon, a marvelously quirky one by Kristine Nielsen, and – here it comes again – an interminable monolog that brought the entire enterprise to a crashing halt during its final thirty minutes. 

Dauntless and surely aware of the built-in pitfalls, the independent theater company known as The Seeing Place has taken on Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, in performance through the end of this week at the Lynn Redgrave Theater, in rep with Marsha Norman’s Getting Out (reviewed here).

If you are unfamiliar with Rhinoceros, its title says it all; this is a play in which, over the course of the evening, all but one of the inhabitants of a town in France turn into rhinoceroses. First produced in 1959, the play can be viewed as a satire about the rise of fascism, a dig at bureaucratic dehumanization, or a screed against mindless conformity. More in keeping with today’s global political climate, arguments the townspeople have over the apparent invasion by African and Asian rhinos may remind you of the scarily xenophobic anti-immigrant uproar abroad and at home. 

While this production cannot avoid all of the digressive traps (which mostly occur in the second half), the good news is that it’s directed with a great antic hand by the company’s founding artistic director Brandon Walker, who nimbly keeps things bouncily aloft through most of the evening and even manages to get us past the talky bits to regroup for a reanimated airborne ending.     

Walker also stars as Ionesco’s ubiquitous Everyman character, Bérenger.  Here he manifests as a nebbishy, heavy-drinking, day-late-and-a-dollar-short sort of guy who would kinda like to conform to social norms but never seems to get around to following the “how to” advice of his would-be mentor and friend Jean (Logan Keeler). The play’s most famous scene involves the two of them. Bérenger visits Jean’s apartment in order to apologize for a falling out they’d had. During the scene (one that helped clinch a Tony Award for Zero Mostel in the original Broadway production), Jean gradually transforms into a rhinoceros. Mr. Keeler does an excellent job of portraying the metamorphosis through body language, a hoarsening of his voice, and some smears of makeup.  

The entire first half of the play is filled with great comic moments, such as when the character of Mrs. Boeuf (Lisa-Marie Newton) discovers that her husband has turned into a rhino. Instead of accepting the suggestion that she assuredly has legitimate grounds for divorce, she goes running after him, determined to stand by her beast no matter what. 

There is also some wackily overlapping dialog involving two separate conversations at a café. Jean and Bérenger are at one table discussing Jean's plan for straightening out his friend's life, while at the adjacent table, a conversation is taking place about the paradoxes involved in logical syllogisms. The two discussions cleverly collide when the same words and phrases are used in both. 

Periodically, all action is interrupted by the thundering sounds of rampaging rhinos, leading not to general panic, but to arguments over whether the animals have one or two horns. Everything is conducted at a brisk pace, with solid comic timing displayed by the entire cast. 

The second half (the play is written in three acts, but here it is split into two) opens cleverly with a motif borrowed from Night of the Living Dead and other zombie tales. Bérenger is holed up in his apartment trying to avoid contact with the rhinos that surround him. In the production, the cast members who have already transformed mill around and through the audience and help distract from an extended philosophic dialog by holding up signs representing the rhinos’ thoughts. “I was told there would be cake,” reads one, while another declares “this beats working for a living.” 

The play itself ends on a high note with Bérenger’s great declaration of self-determination: “I will not capitulate!” And if you decline to capitulate to Ionesco’s sometimes tangential meanderings, you’ll have a fine time immersing yourself in the fascinatingly absurd ridiculousness of it all.    

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the new website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  

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