Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Samuel Becket are generally cited as the earliest and foremost Theater of the Absurd playwrights. Their plays were wrought in the cataclysmic shadow of World War II. Not only were they roiled by the wake of brutal genocide, widespread hunger, and massive dislocation of entire populations, but by the questions of human character and free will raised by these catastrophes. Using gallows humor and razor-sharp irony, they address the apparent absence of order, meaning or value in the universe. The label "Theater of the Absurd" was first used by literary critic Martin Esslin in 1962 to identify the common ground in such seminal works as The Maids (1947, Genet), The Bald Soprano (1950, Ionesco), Waiting for Godot (1953, Becket), The Birthday Party (1958, Harold Pinter) and, in 1960, Rhinoceros.
Rhinoceros begins at a café where the "everyman" Berenger once again arrives late to meet with his best friend John. John berates Berenger for his chronic tardiness, excessive drinking, slovenly dress and grooming, and other shortcomings. Berenger shrugs off his inability to fulfill his duties, as defined by John, stating "I just can't get used to life," but he is mortified when Daisy, a co-worker for whom he has romantic longings, enters the café. Meanwhile, at another table, a logician and a gentleman discuss the mechanics of logic, misapplying such tools as syllogisms to reach absurd conclusions. The gentleman, bamboozled by the logician, exclaims "Logic is a very beautiful thing!" to which the logician responds "As long it is not abused." The café server, bus-boy, chef, proprietor, and a diner with a cat upon her lap act as a kind of "Greek chorus." Suddenly, a rhinoceros is seen and heard, charging down the street. John is outraged by the disorder the animals represent, but the response of the others is fairly muted, summed up by repeatedly uttering the phrase "Well, of all things." Soon a second rhino is seenor is it the same rhinoceros being spotted a second time? The parties cannot agree on this, but there is general, if tepid, agreement that rhinoceroses should not be allowed to run through the town. Only after an unexpected act of violence does real danger seem to be at hand.
Scene two takes us to the office where Berenger and Daisy work. A skeptical co-worker is certain that there are no rhinoceroses about, conjuring excuses for the reported sightings, while their boss urges them to attend to work. Only when they learn that another co-worker has become a rhinoceros do they realize the realityand true natureof the threat. In the remaining scenes, the outbreak of "rhinoceritis" continues, trampling over friendship, love, and civic duty. At the end, Berenger no longer fears the rhinos, but admires them, crying out "My skin is so slack. I can't stand this white, hairy body. Oh I'd love to have a hard skin in that wonderful dull green colora skin that looks decent naked without any hair on it, like theirs!"
Among the play's concerns are the value of will power and self-improvement, the existence of free will, the absurdity of reliance on logic, the numbing nature of work, the possibility of true love fending off all woes, and the roots of "herd mentality"literally, in this case. It is quite a basket of intellectual balls for one play, but Ionesco juggles them adroitly. There are discussions of the relative nobility of rhinoceroses and humans, speculations over whether those transformed chose freely to do so, judging whether a rhino is "bad" if it destroys property or simply exercising its own moral code, and questioning the standards for determining whether a rhinoceros is ugly or beautiful.
The play's characters are stand-ins for rhetorical positions, so there is no real emotional depth or character development. That said, Lucas Gerstner is wonderful as Berenger, the "everyman" character at the center of the play. Gerstner makes Berenger sympathetic, depicts his transition from denial to resolve against the menace, even as he decries his growing sense of dread and isolation. Clint Allen plays John with appropriately effete arrogance in act one, and offers a physically robust transition to his animal nature in act two. The rest of the cast have moments that shine here and there as they cartoon typesin particular, Laura Hoover as the know-it-all co-worker, Erin Granger as the one-track minded boss, and Kelly Lynn Regan quite funny as an office assistant handicapped by a tight skirt and high heels.
The costumes and stage sets are modest, but suitable, though Kimberly L. Lawler earns props for the rhinoceros masks. James R Harding's sound design adds immensely to the production, with the trumpeting cries of the rhinos and thunder of their hoofs as they charge through the town.
Theatre in the Round's production falters where quick cuts are needed, as between the tandem John/Berenger and Logician/Gentleman conversations, or the stages of John's transformation from man to beast. Director George M. Roesler has not been able to maneuver those quick cuts, allowing the play's structure to undermine the fluidity of its ideas. Further, peripheral characters in the first two scenes, at the café and at the office, are given stylized movements and gestures which convey the lack of personal meaning in their work but distract from the interactions between the more central characters. Roesler successfully unspools the abundance of ideas Ionesco has wrapped into the play, but we hear them being pronounced rather than fully experience their enactment.
Shortcomings of the production aside, Rhinoceros is a provocative and witty play, and Theatre in the Round provides us a welcome opportunity to see it, anew or for the first time. In 1960 the central issues were seen in light of the inexplicable barbarism of World War II, particularly the question of how the masses can be won over by movements that at first blush seem both brutal and preposterous. In the decades since, tyrants continue to seize power, episodes of genocide and its sibling "ethnic cleansing" continue to erupt, and outbreaks of xenophobia creates schisms among nations and shatters lives within them. The artistic qualities of Theater of the Absurd, epitomized in Rhinoceros, once blazed new trails. Today they may seem dated, but their themes continue to be pressing and make these works, in the light of the 21st century, compelling viewing.
Rhinoceros continues at Theatre in the Round Players, through January 28, 2018, 245 Cedar Avenue, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $24.00, Seniors (62+) $20.00, Students with ID $20.00. Discounts valid for Friday and Sunday performances only. For tickets call 612-333-3010 or go to TheatreintheRound.org.
Writer: Eugene Ionesco; Translation: Derek Prouse; Director: George M. Roesler; Set Design: Dietrich Poppen; Costume Design: Bobbi-Iverson-Roesler; Lighting Design: Mark Kieffer; Sound Design: James R. Harding; Props Design: Robert J. Smith; Mask Designer: Kimberly L. Lawler; Stage Manager: Briana K. Roesler Skowronek; Assistant Lighting Designer: Trygve Eggen; Assistant Prop Designer: Tommy Anderson; Assistant Stage Manager: Marciniak.
Cast: Clint Allen (John), Lucas Gerstner (Berenger), Erin Granger (Chef/Ms. Papillion), Hannah Halvorson (Waitress/Mrs. Boeuf), Phil Holt (Gentleman/Office Janitor), Laura Hoover (Lady with the Cat/Botard), Charles Numrich (Logician/Office Notary), Austan Peterschick (Dudard), Kelly Lynn Regan (Café Proprietor/Papillion's Assistant), Jane Catherine Sterk (Daisy), Jay Urmann (Bus Boy/Firefighter).