By John Quinn
To close its lucky 13th season, The Abreact turns to one of the acknowledged masters of Theater of the Absurd, Eugene Ionesco. “Rhinoceros” may be 55 years old, but this cautionary tale is as timely as today’s front page.
“Rhinoceros” is a political and social allegory. Its protagonist is Berenger, a sort of Everyman that Ionesco featured in a number of plays. He’s a disheveled, heavy drinker and a low-level office worker. He’s late for his Sunday morning meeting with his fastidious friend, Jean, but Jean’s lecture is interrupted by a rhinoceros charging through the town square. This is a wonder, because the rhino is not native to provincial France. The observers of the phenomenon are reduced to “Well, of all things!” and “Fancy that!” The appearance of another rhino is no less amazing, but, while one rhino is remarkable, two rhinoceroses (the preferred plural for this play) are a pattern. But is it really two pachyderms, or the same one seen twice? Are they of Asiatic or African origin? Ionesco brilliantly explores the limits of logic and rationalism when faced with the unexplainable.
The truth is soon discovered: One by one, the citizens are turning into rhinoceroses. Some embrace the change, reveling in liberation; others, like Belanger, Jean and Daisy (Belanger’s co-worker and secret crush), resist. Resistance is futile – after all, everybody’s doing it.
The artist is like a canary in a coal mine when society’s atmosphere turns toxic. East European playwrights like Vaclav Havel, Karl Capek and Ionesco witnessed the rise of “isms,” and railed against them. The strictures of ideological conformity appall free thinkers. The rise of fascism in Ionesco’s native Rumania is the source material for “Rhinoceros.”
John Jakery, who directed The Abreact’s compelling 2012 production of Beckett’s “Endgame,” once again demonstrates a thorough understanding of the complexities endemic in absurdist theater. His splendid cast makes the inexplicable, comprehensible. (I just had to see what those two words looked like side by side. Impressive).
Joe Hamid’s Berenger is expertly rendered, powerfully detailing his character’s journey from nebbish to rebel. Scott Wilding presents a study in contrasts as Berenger’s best friend Jean, and his metamorphosis from uptight prude to rampaging rhino is gratifying. Sarah Lovey, as Daisy, is a sweet counterpart to Jean’s intolerance and her pivotal scene with Hamid, in which “in the space of a few minutes we’ve gone through 25 years of married life” is profoundly moving.
Dax Anderson, Keith Kalinowski, Madelyn Porter and Krista Schafer assume multiple roles, reflecting the varied ways the townspeople react to the transformations. Anderson is particularly of note playing The Logician, giddily running roughshod over reason through a series of silly syllogisms. He then turns in an ominous rant as Mr. Botard, an over-the-top Rationalist who denies the existence of the rhinoceroses because he hasn’t personally experienced them. He’d rather be a conspiracy theorist.
Troy Richard’s set and Brett Fragel’s sound designs are double challenges to an audience, designed to keep us a little off balance. The set is claustrophobic, hemmed in by partial walls. Their upper surfaces are miniature battle fields complete with inch high soldiers and tanks to scale. The set leaves no doubt as to extremism’s outcome. The sound system is full of the thundering hoof beats of the rhinoceros herd, loud enough to quicken one’s pulse and set you on edge.
An “ism” has risen once again in Eastern Europe – nationalism. As Russia’s push for a new hegemony destabilizes world order, what will be the fate of those individualists who cry out, “I’m not capitulating!”? “Rhinoceros” boldly asks the question but doesn’t give an answer. It only offers food for thought.
The Abreact, 1301 W. Lafayette #113, Detroit. 8 p.m. May 16, 17, 23, 24, 30 & 31, plus 4 p.m. May 25. 2 hours, 30 minutes. Admission by donation. 313-454-1542. http://www.theabreact.com