Monday, April 20, 2015

Ionesco's Rhinocerous in Revival by Onomatopoeia Theatre Company

The Onomatopoeia Theatre Company
by Eugene Ionesco

Rhinoceros poster art - “The Rhinoceros” woodcut (1598) David Kandel

Eugene Ionesco wrote Rhinoceros in 1959, more than a half-century ago; it was first produced a year later under the direction of Orson Welles at the Royal Court Theatre in London, starring Laurence Olivier as Berenger.  In 1961, the play moved to Broadway, featuring Eli Wallach as Berenger and Zero Mostel as Jean, a role for which Mostel won that year’s Tony Award.  In 1973, it was adapted for the movies (still called Rhinoceros) and in 1990 it was adapted for a musical entitled Born Again.  Currently it is being revived in a limited off off Broadway run by The Onomatopoeia Theatre Company at the Gene Frankel Theater on Bond Street in downtown Manhattan, starring Adam G. Brooks as Berenger and Alex Levitt as Jean.  This is a very ambitious project for Onomatopoeia to undertake, considering how high Olivier, Wallach and Mostel set the bar in their earlier performances, but both Brooks and Levitt, although relatively young actors, have proven themselves to be up to the task and both can take justifiable pride in their own performances.

The play’s plot is a classic example of the theatrical genre known as “Theatre for the Absurd,“ the movement with which Ionesco is most closely identified.  One or two rhinoceroses are running amok in a small peaceful French town.  Nor are these ordinary rhinoceroses that may have escaped from some local zoo or traveling circus.  Far from it.  They actually are people who have contracted "rhinoceritis," a strange malady that turns its victims into full-fledged rhinoceroses (Asian or African, take your pick), horns and all.  Before long, there are not just one or two rhinoceroses on the loose but dozens – a full-fledged epidemic.  But what does it all mean and what, if anything, should be done about it?

Thomas R. Gordon, Onomatopoeia’s Artistic Director has affirmed that the Company seeks …to create theatre with a focus on sound! Any and all types of sound!  Whether it is music, yelling or a symphony of emotions, we aim to create theatre that must be heard to really be seen!”  Well, if that is the Company’s mission, I can think of no better play for it to have revived than Rhinoceros, what with all the stomping, grunting, wheezing and trumpeting emanating from the pachyderms from which the play derives its name. 

But of course Ionesco’s motive in writing his play wasn’t just to make noise.  He had some very important things to say and while critics and playgoers continue to disagree on whether his primary goal was to indict the Communist movement (much as George Orwell did in Animal Farm), or whether it was to condemn Vichy France’s collaboration with the Nazis during World War II, or whether it was just one more example of existential angst (think Becket or Camus), there are at least three points on which they are all in substantial agreement:
First, the play certainly is an attack on conformity and the willingness of all too many otherwise decent and well-meaning people to capitulate unthinkingly to the will of the majority.  It is quite similar to the point that Ibsen asserted in Enemy of the People when he proclaimed that “The majority is never right.  Never, I tell you! That’s one of these lies in society that no free and intelligent man can help rebelling against.”  Edmund Burke expressed a similar sentiment when he wrote: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

In Rhinoceros it is Berenger (a somewhat irresponsible sot) who turns out to be that last “free and intelligent man,” retaining his humanity in the face of the “rhinoceritis” epidemic, even as he watches one after another of his friends and neighbors– ultimately even including his best friend, Jean, and his sweetheart, Daisy (Charlotte Vaughan Raines) – succumb to the deadly disease, despite their most vehement initial protestations.  Apparently, when push came to shove, they all decided that one must “go along to get along” and that despite one’s personal values, one should “not be judgmental” but should simply “live and let live.”  Maybe being a rhinoceros wouldn’t be so bad after all.

Second, Ionesco clearly intended to mock mankind’s frequent tendency to focus on the trivial and ignore what is truly important - in short, to fail to see the forest for the trees.  The Logician (Clinton Powell) and The Old Gentleman (Albert Baker), played almost as if they were Estragon and Vladimir in Waiting for Godot, discuss at great length whether the first two rhinoceros sightings were of one and the same rhinoceros at two different moments in time or were of two different animals; whether the beasts had one horn apiece or two or whether one rhino might have had one horn and the other two - if, indeed, there really were two different animals; or, if there actually had been only one rhinoceros after all, whether it might have had two horns at the time of its initial sighting but lost one before it was sighted the second time; whether the animal (or animals) were Asian or African rhinoceroses; whether it is the Asian rhinoceros that has one horn and the African rhinoceros that has two or whether it might not be the other way around; and on and on.  Lost in all the verbiage was any consideration of the fact that the rhinoceroses were wreaking havoc throughout the town.  And that ultimately, as they spread, the consequences for the entire world could be absolutely catastrophic.  One rhino or two, one horn or two, Asian or African - who really cares?

Third, Ionesco holds up to ridicule those who simply deny reality whenever they find it unpleasant to accept.  Thus Mr. Botard (also played by Clinton Powell) vehemently denies to Ms Dudard (Zoe V. Speas) that the rhinoceros (or rhinoceroses) even exist, let alone represent a threat to the town, despite all of the eye witness testimony to that effect.  And he denies to Mrs. Boeuf (Julia Register) that humans could possibly be turning into rhinoceroses, despite the fact that she claims to have just seen her husband turn into one.  These are simply facts that he chooses not to face.  Until, that is, Mr. Boeuf, who has, indeed, turned into a rhinoceros, shows up to destroy the staircase leading to the office in which Mr. Botard is holding forth, necessitating both his and Ms Dudard’s rescues by several firemen.

Rhinoceros was first produced barely fifteen years after the end of World War II and during the very earliest stages of the Cold War when the Soviet Union still dominated half the world.  Understandably, it was especially relevant at that time, with the world still very much aware of the horrors that can accompany an unwillingness to confront evil in all its incarnations in order to avoid being deemed too judgmental, too unconventional, or simply unwilling to see the other guy’s side..  But although World War II and the Cold War are behind us, the fact remains that the play is just as relevant today as it ever was.

Today’s “rhinoceroses” are no longer Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union but they are Al Qaeda and ISIS, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Russia and North Korea.  Russia’s seizure of Crimea was eerily reminiscent of the Nazis’ annexation of Sudetenland and the world’s acquiescence in the one is as frightening as it is in the other.  And yet, as today’s “political correctness” segues into moral relativism, we find the President of the United States evaluating Islamist terrorism through the prism of the Catholic Inquisition of more than 500 years ago; seeking to understand Shariah law (which mandates stoning and decapitation for adultery or blasphemy) by viewing it through the eyes of those raised in other cultures; and urging negotiations over nuclear weapons with a rogue state committed to the sponsorship of world terrorism, the denial of the right of Israel even to exist, and the rallying cry “Death to America.”  It is tantamount to his attempting to sit down to tea with a rhinoceros.

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