“Rhino” demolishes theatrical traditions

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February 25, 2011

12:02 AM

Don’t look now, but there’s a terrible beast rampaging through the rafters at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall. It’s trampling all over the stage, too. A shame, really. It was a lovely space.

To be honest, it isn’t really a beast. Not in the usual sense. And that noise isn’t the fault of some marauding animal. That sound? That crashing and banging you might hear this weekend, emanating from the theater?
Well, that would be an entire auditorium losing hold of its conviction as the beast smashes to the ground.

It may only be coincidence that this occurs during performances of Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros,” directed by theater professor Laurie Wolf in a production from the College of William and Mary theater department. But if that’s the case, it would be truly shocking.

Ionesco’s play, detailing the slow but steady transformation of the people of a French provincial town into snorting, manic beasts, is most often read as an allegory against the insidious spread of Nazism through an unsuspecting public. But to characterize such a bold and brilliant work with precise labeling would be to pigeonhole a play that criticizes and mocks the very idea of categorization itself. “Rhinoceros” is about fascism insofar that it is about every ideological movement that takes hold of a group of people which does not their question its motives. Wolf, too, refuses to give in to such a simplistic reading of the play; there are moments clearly intended to comment on the Third Reich (in perhaps a hall-of-fame moment for this critic’s deductive abilities, the hand signals say as much), but the broad strokes painted by the actors and staging suggest that such a phenomenon could happen anywhere.

What makes “Rhinoceros,” remarkable is the absurd and naturalistic passivity of its characters. As a charging rhino blazes through a square, the bystanders quickly begin wondering whether the creature has one horn or two. Logicians begin forming theorems on the matter, amnesiac in their indifference to the extraordinary. As the “rhinoceritis” takes hold more of citizens, becoming a leather-skinned, one-ton herbivore seems increasingly more reasonable. That is, until there is only a mild-mannered clerk left standing.

That clerk, Berenger (Greg Benson ’11), is something of an eccentric — complacent until the moments when those around him change, and then passionate about the false certainties in his life that have already begun to disappear. Benson’s Berenger is restrained in his expressiveness, but is no less believable. His Everyman persona, a deeply held self-delusion, comes through in the hesitation before a reaction, a stammer, as his world falls apart. When he at last takes a stand, there are no illusions of heroism to be had, and this is no brave struggle. It is a capitulation of convenience, and Benson correctly denies the audience of any comforting catharsis.

Zoe Speas ’12, as Berenger’s friend and social better Jeanne, provides well-defined contrast between her impeccable grasp of the “correct” life and the primal disarray of her change into a raging monster. Speas’s transformation, the inevitable destruction of any established cultural order, is a collapse of epic proportions. Claire Fredriksen ’11, as Berenger’s love interest, is an appealing baby face who gains a fiery confidence once she sees just how much fun it must be to run with the pack. And Francesca Chilcote ’11, in providing yet another onstage metamorphosis, makes for an uproarious spectacle. (Let the cleverly calculated implications of only female actors being made horny not go unmentioned.)

Impressive as much of the staging might be, there are some issues on the technical side which, despite their intent, interfere with an otherwise inspired production. The preponderance of sound effects from Zach Armstrong ’11, while essential and well chosen, sometimes take precedence over Ionesco’s words. (This was a balance issue that may have been corrected by press time.) And theater professor Steve Holliday’s lighting, initially indicating the inevitable conversion of the characters, obfuscates the actors’ faces in the late sections of the play. As laudable as the notion of a shadowy “Rhinoceros” is in theory, it would be nice not to guess how Berenger responds to his dismal situation half of the time.

Yet, despite such hurdles, Wolf’s “Rhinoceros” is a daring production. Ionesco’s material is a delightfully unsettling -exploration into our nature as trusting beings, dependent on rationality, and the play pulls no punches for the unwary spectator. So, be forewarned — this is not theater for the weak willed — or for those attendees with a tendency to head butt their neighbors.

“Rhinoceros” will run through Sunday Feb. 27 at Phi Betta Kappa. Tickets cost $5 for students and $10 for general audience.

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