You can almost hear your mother saying it: "If everyone else turned into a rhinoceros, would you turn into a rhinoceros too?" Eugene Ionesco's absurdist play turns this hypothetical question into reality, as the citizens of a small French town slowly start transforming into a rampaging horde of rhinos. Done correctly, the show is simultaneously a silly romp about a town gone mad, and an indictment of the sort of mentality that can lead otherwise sane people to unquestioningly join a mob in behavior they would normally consider unthinkable.
Unfortunately, the production by the Arroyo Repertory Theatre frequently fails to connect with either the comedy or the message in Ionesco's play, resulting in a production that only rarely delivers Ionesco's goods. Nearly everyone in the company has some sort of problem with the script. At the performance reviewed (two weeks into the show's run), many cast members were still tripping over lines. Most had problems with Ionesco's language, with only a few performers in small roles managing to get through the text without sounding awkward and stilted at some point. But the biggest problem is a production that simply isn't funny - the Arroyo Rep gives us characters who take themselves too seriously to get caught up in the comedic mayhem for which they were aiming.
The problems begin in the first act, when the townspeople first see one rhinoceros running down the street - or was it two? In trying to decide whether there were two different rhinoceroses or just one seen twice, the people get sidetracked into a debate of whether an African rhino has one horn or two. This can be funny if it is played quickly. The arguments frequently repeat, and it would play for laughs if the lines flew, as if in an Abbott and Costello routine. It would accentuate Ionesco's point - these people are arguing over something ridiculous while there is a rhino freely walking their streets. But the fact that these characters are bogged down in what are clearly the wrong questions is lost to the audience, because director John Serembe has chosen to give the one horn/two horns debate more weight than it deserves, by allowing the discussion to unfold in its own time, as though it actually mattered.
The show's second act, in which increasing numbers of citizens turn into rhinoceroses, is substantially better. Felipe Galvez does a remarkable job transforming onstage. While the staging allows him to gradually increase his green make-up surreptitiously, the real treat is Galvez's performance itself, as he screws his face into a primal, animal grimace, and lowers his voice into a low growl. Doug Rynerson follows with a more subtle, comedic transformation; he seems normal, but when you aren't expecting it, he'll suddenly eat some flowers. There's also a very unusual element to his performance. While Galvez's vocal-rhinoceros moments involve a growl, Rynerson's vocal slips into rhinocerosness implicate a comic German accent, of the sort you'd hear on "Hogan's Heroes." It sort of spells out Ionesco's point in case you missed it - people transforming into rhinoceroses is an allegory for people blindly following a political movement, such as the Nazi party. The production has a similar reference at the end of the play, and that final, powerful image is all that is truly necessary.
For Rhinoceros, the Arroyo Rep has constructed an unusual stage in its space, placing the audience on the stage and the performers in a built-up stage area where the audience usually sits. To the extent it attempts to heighten the audience's awareness of its own potential for blindly going along with the crowd, it's a great idea. There are also projections on an upstage screen which add to the play and also cover set changes. Drummers performing off the sides of the stage effectively suggest the sound of the stampeding animals, and the company's use of rhino masks makes for some downright creepy moments. It just isn't enough to overcome a production where the actors largely fail to make the lines really live.
Rhinoceros runs at the Arroyo Repertory Theatre in Pasadena, weekends through June 28, 2003. For tickets, call (626) 398-6522, or see www.arroyorepertorytheatre.com.
The Arroyo Repertory Theatre presents Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco. Director, Set design and graphics by John Serembe; A.D./Choreography, Costumer, Properties and Mask Design by Jude Lucas; Lighting designer Doug Rynerson; Makeup and Hair Design by Wendy Hayes; Sound Design by Jude Lucas, Kevin Crowley, J. Serembe; Stage Manager Will Lucas; Masque construction/painting by Kelsey Short, Alexis Demetriades; Prop crew Alexander Rynerson; Press Relations Philip Sokoloff; Box Office Manager Felipe Gavez; House Manager Katsy Chappell; Set Foreman/tech crew Tom Price.