Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Rhinoceros: good thought, not as good execution

Scene from Rhinoceros (John Ulman)
Strawberry Theatre Workshop
Through October 8, 2016

Rhinoceros is a famous absurdist play by Romanian playwright Eugène Ionesco, written in 1959. Certainly, Strawberry Theatre Workshop chose to mount the play now because it was originally written to reflect Ionesco’s experience of the rise of “group think” during Nazism, and Strawshop is making a comparison to today’s Trump politics.

For more background, I will quote from about the play. “Over the course of three acts, the inhabitants of a small, provincial French town turn into rhinoceroses… The only human who does not succumb to this mass metamorphosis is the central character, Bérenger, a flustered everyman figure…The play is often read as a response and criticism to the sudden upsurge of Communism, Fascism, and Nazism during the events preceding World War II, and explores the themes of conformity, culture, mass movements, mob mentality, philosophy and morality.”

Bérenger, in this production is played by Carol Louise Thompson, who has done some excellent work around town on various small stages. Translating a man into a woman here doesn’t change much. There is a love story and so, obviously, it becomes a same-sex one, but that changes little else about the trajectory of the play.

More “As a young man, the Francophile democrat Ionesco was horrified at the way that so many of his generation had embraced the Iron Guard and he wrote the play … as an allegory for the way in which so many young people in 1930s Romania had become Legionaries, fanatically chanting such mindless slogans such as ‘Kill the Jews!’ and ‘Long live death!’ (Racially) Jewish Ionesco was especially terrified as many of his friends who were once liberals had joined the Iron Guard and become fanatical anti-Semitics.”

To a certain extent, it’s probably best that someone know this premise already going in. Otherwise, even with the help of projections of old films of marching Nazis and Japanese from World War II, the idea of why people would be turning into rhinoceroses could still be confusing. Director Jess K. Smith has a firm grasp of that particular resonance.

The main difficulty in the production is a mash-up of styles that don’t quite bring out the sardonic intentions of the playwright. Thompson and Shawn Belyea, as Bérenger’s good friend Jean, work hard to create a naturalistic delivery of the play, which makes it feel far more contemporary. However, the play is by nature stylistic, with phrases that get repeated on purpose and farcical elements that could be amped up, both for more humor and for heightened stylistic reasons.

More “All of the characters except Bérenger talk in clichés… ‘Well, of all things!’, a phrase that occurs in the play twenty-six times. Ionesco was suggesting that by vacuously repeating clichés instead of meaningful communication, his characters had lost their ability to think critically and were thus already partly rhinoceros.”

In creating a more naturalistic delivery, the repetition starts to disappear and can be overlooked. It lessens the flavor that repetition is designed to create – the parroting effect that Ionesco means the audience to hear clearly.

The rest of the able cast works in the same style. But the mashup ends up making them appear less prepared than they likely are, due to uneven delivery. The foreboding nature of the continuing transformation of more and more characters into rhinoceroses should be kind of scary, especially to the characters. Instead, it feels anticipated and a bit anticlimactic.

In that way, the idea of the play becomes a better one than the production Strawshop brings off for this production. Sometimes, the thought counts more than the result.

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