Internationally renowned playwright and absurdist master, Eugene Ionesco was born in Slatina, Romania in 1909 and died in Paris, France in 1994. His work (more than twenty plays, as well as stories, memoirs, theoretical essays and a novel) profoundly altered the face of modern drama, inspired a revolution in dramatic techniques, and helped inaugurate the “Theatre of the Absurd.” His most famous full-length play, ,” was written as a response to and criticism of the sudden upsurge of Communism, Fascism, and Nazism during events preceding World War II. It explores mob mentality and conformity, and how important it is to stay true to your own beliefs and speak up when challenged to believe any other way.
Pacific Resident Theatre is to be commended for their commitment to rediscovering rarely performed classics, this time topically reimagining Ionesco’s comic masterpiece, set in a small provincial town outside of Paris. The opening scene on a seemingly average day in an outdoor café takes a strange turn when, seemingly from out of nowhere, a rhinoceros (heard but not seen) runs through the town. While the event shocks everyone, no one seems to be willing to take action, preferring to just sit around and discuss their opinions on what they saw. Of course, opinions differ and tempers flare, and soon the citizens discover how quickly one’s sense of humanity can be eroded when facing the dangers of a herd mentality. Rhinoceros” is a timely and brilliant indictment of impending fascism created by a master of Avant-Garde, a foreboding warning to the citizens of the world today.
Ionesco was inspired to write this piece as he watched the rise of the fascist Iron Guard in Romania, saying, “I don’t know if you have noticed it, but when people no longer share your opinions, when you can no longer make yourself understood by them, one has the impression of being confronted with monsters—rhinos, for example. They have that mixture of candor and ferocity. They would kill you with the best of consciences.”
“The play is a wild, hilarious farce – with a lot of bite. I think of it as Kafka meets Monty Python. Ultimately, a warning about how gradually authoritarian and totalitarian mindsets can infiltrate, grow, transform and conquer entire communities…even the whole world. It traces and points out the different stages of this phenomenon as a caution that one must reject joining the herd and always hold on to their individual humanity” – Guillermo Cienfuegos; Director.
With a run time of nearly three hours, mostly due to the need for several major scene changes requiring two intermissions, the play can be challenging to those not familiar with various political beliefs in that each character seems to offer dialogue reminiscent of many political “isms” such as Communism, Fascism, Imperialism, Nazism, Socialism, Capitalism, and too many more to name. But even so, the tale is easy to follow as two lifelong friends, the “Everyman” Berenger (Keith Stevenson) and his upper crust friend Jean (Alex Fernandez) try to make sense of their lives, their class differences, and how to deal with the pachyderms that have invaded their peaceful town.
But within a week, one by one each citizen morphs into a rhinoceros after accepting, without question, the herd mentality and beliefs, with Fernandez physically transforming right before our eyes during the second act. It’s a tour-de-force performance as his animal instincts emerge as his physical appearance changes. But it is his friend Berenger who holds true to his individualism, though at first his appearance and drunken behavior would make you think he might be the first to accept the beliefs of others, especially Jean, who try to convince him there is a better way to live his life.
The entire ensemble is to be commended for their excellent character portrayals as the many different townspeople who are more than willing to spout their own opinions at first before their transformations take place into the herd. The cast includes (in alphabetically order), Sarah Brooke, Peter Elbling, Alex Fernandez, Brad Greenquist, Robert Lesser, Joanna Lipari (at the performance I attended), Jeff Lorch, Kendrah McKay, Keith Stevenson, Melissa Weber Bales, Melinda West, Carole Weyers, and Sarah Zinsser, many of whom play more than one role.
Kudos also go out to the rest of the production team: David Mauer whose small stage set design surprising transforms into so many different locales, Chris Moscatiello whose rhinoceros sound design will make you look around in wonder, expecting the animals to really run around the theater, Justin Preston (Lighting Designer), Christine Cover Ferro (Costume Design), Myrna Gawryn (Choreographer), and Producers Marilyn Fox, Rachel Berney Needleman, and Sara Newman-Martins for Pacific Resident Theatre.
“Rhinoceros” runs at 8pm Thursdays – Saturdays, 3pm on Sundays through September 10, 2017 (No performances Aug 4, 5, & 6). The run time is approximately 3 hours with two intermissions. Pacific Resident Theatre is located at 703 Venice Blvd. in Venice, CA 90291. Tickets are $25 – $34 (Seniors & Students $3 off on Thurs. & Fri; Student rush $12) and can be purchased online at http://www.pacificresidenttheatre.com or by calling (310) 822-8392. Parking is free in the lot behind the theater and on the street.