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Rhinoceros

American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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“Humanism is dead, those who follow it are just old sentimentalists” — Eugène Ionesco

In “Rhinoceros,” the celebrated absurdist play by Eugène Ionesco (1909-1994), we witness herd mentality gone amuck in its most literal form. This dark 1959 comedy is often interpreted as Ionesco’s response to the rise of antisemitism, Fascism, and Nazism prior to World War II, especially during his youth in Romania.

Tony Award-winning director Frank Galati’s (ACT’s 1776) innovative take on this overtly funny but covertly serious political play about conformity and mob mentality versus personal ethics and responsibility is ACT’s best production of the season. In fact, ACT’s decision to produce the play at this time seems in and of itself a political statement — one that profoundly needs to be heard.

The curtain opens on an attractive, colorful, stylized painted backdrop of a café in a French provincial town square (sets and costumes, Robert Perdziola). Berenger (excellent David Breitbarth), a kind, unkempt, lazy slob (in Yiddish: a schlub) arrives late as usual to meet his friend Gene (first-rate Matt DeCaro), the always prompt, well-spoken, but judgmental dandy. As the two bicker like an old married couple about Berenger’s tardiness and slovenliness, they are amazed to see a wild rhinoceros race by. The two friends, as well as other townsfolk who gather in shock, contend that rhinos should not be allowed in town.

Later, at Berenger’s office, the rational Dudard (Teddy Spencer) argues with the intense and unpredictable Botard (Jomar Tagatac), who cannot believe that a rhinoceros is actually living in his country, despite all the eyewitness claims to the contrary. Their intellectual discussions become moot when an employee’s wife, Mrs. Boeuf (Trish Mulholland) enters to report her husband’s strange illness. Suddenly, the office’s lower floor and stairway are destroyed by the former Mr. Boeuf, now a snorting raging rhino. In a masterful piece of stagecraft, Mrs. Boeuf jumps downstairs onto the enormous rump of the rhino, and we see her ride into the distance as if she were a bronco buster.

Berenger then visits Gene and the two quarrel about the ethics of becoming a rhinoceros. In yet another fabulous fit of stagecraft, Matt DeCaro convincingly transforms himself into the grunting beast on stage without the benefit of costume or makeup.

As this 90-minute (one-intermission) production continues, Berenger, for all his foibles, is left to fight for his humanity. He ponders whether adjusting to living among rhinos is the safer and appropriate solution or is it preferable to resist at all costs, even if it might mean losing his girlfriend, Daisy (terrific Rona Figueroa)?

ACT’s exciting and thought-provoking staging of “Rhinoceros,” based on the production of the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida, is an intellectual, comedic yet serious-minded piece of theater. Disguised by its marvelous entertainment value, “Rhinoceros” raises all too relevant issues about the dangers of blind conformity and Fascism.

By Emily S. Mendel

emilymendel@gmail.com

©Emily S. Mendel 2019    All Rights Reserved.

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