However you may feel about seeing Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros onstage, you can’t say it’s been over-presented. The Asolo Rep’s current production is the first local staging in my memory (although it did bring back to mind a filmed version starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, many moons ago), and it’s a refreshing change of pace from the usual theater fare.
Director Frank Galati, working freely from Derek Prouse’s translation of the absurdist classic, has taken adeptly to letting Ionesco’s 1959 play relate to certain elements of today’s political climate. But Rhinoceros is seldom heavy-handed here (despite the tramping of those herds offstage), and it especially provides a nice showcase for veteran Asolo Rep actor David Breitbarth as Berenger—a stand-in of sorts for us all, feeling worried and exhausted by modern life and striving to somehow stay true to himself and humanity.
The opening scene, set in a pleasant French café designed by Robert Perdziola (the set overall consists of paneled drops, making it easy for actors to enter and exit and the action to proceed), introduces us to Berenger, a rumpled, hapless sort of fellow being taken to task by his friend Gene (Matt DeCaro), whose impeccable attire and man-of-the-world air contrast with his friend in every way. Gene admonishes Berenger to stop drinking and take more seriously to his work, and Berenger admits he must be right. “I just can’t get used to life,” he says, and we feel for him.
The first act goes by in a flash, as the friends’ conversation is interrupted by the ominous roars of rhinos on the street. The first reaction, naturally, is fear. At work the next day, Berenger’s fellow employees debate what others may or may not have seen. Botard (Brandon Dahlquist), not present himself at the rhino sightings, dismisses the reports as “fake news”; Dudard (Matt Mueller) wants to keep his mind open; while Berenger’s love interest Daisy (Laura Rook) stands up for what she’s seen. Then enters Mrs. Boeuf (Peggy Roeder, in a fun but all-too-brief bit), who says she’s been pursued there by a rhinoceros—one she later identifies as her husband.
Why are the townspeople turning to rhinos? How does a transformation like that begin, and how does it gain strength? You don’t have to be a theater or political junkie to see the parallels between fascism, Nazism or a certain brand of populism—the herd mentality is strong in all of us—but the clarity of Ionesco’s comparison is made entertaining, even while still sobering, by his comic approach.
Galati has trimmed the original script quite a bit, and there are pros and cons to that. Most won’t protest the omission of a lot of repetitive, overlapping dialogue from the original, although Ionesco purists (if there are any around) may miss the Logician, among other characters not seen here. What’s been pruned might have served to heighten the frustration and confusion of Ionesco’s play, but what we get is plenty.
The trimming does mean that it is Breitbarth and DeCaro we center on, with other characters relegated to short appearances. The change that takes place within Gene in Act II is both funny and frightening, aided by Chris Ostrom’s greenish lighting, and DeCaro and Breitbarth (given one of his best roles lately, and more than rising to it) play it with relish.
I’m not certain the addition to the production of a café owner in drag (Matthew McGee) singing Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” at the opening of the show and later on in a reprise, really works (although that may be in part because the song is so overused in general when trying to summon up a French ambiance). But the audience seemed to like it, and perhaps it does indeed have something to say about the choices we make in life. Poor Berenger. Poor us.
Rhinoceros continues in rotating repertory through April 14; for tickets call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org.