Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

American Conservatory Theater
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Jomar Tagatac, Danny Scheie, Rona Figueroa,
Teddy Spencer, and Trish Mulholland

Photo by Kevin Berne
If American Conservatory Theater had chosen to stage Eugène Ionesco's absurdist play Rhinoceros three or four years ago instead of now (it opened at ACT's Geary Theatre on June 5), I think it would have baffled and confused me, and I would have walked away thinking the play has its moments but is ultimately a bit pointless, creaky, and slightly antique. But given the political environment in which we currently find ourselves, Rhinoceros is more relevant today than it was when it premiered in 1959 in Düsseldorf. At that time, fascism had been mostly defeated, and Ionesco's warning of the dangers of group-think and conformism in the face of authoritarianism could be experienced in the comfort of a world where advancing a political agenda based primarily on the hatred of "the other" seemed unthinkable.

In 2019 though, as we are—on an almost daily basis—presented with falsehoods masquerading as truth, and verifiable facts denounced as "fake news," Ionesco's tale of a village where one by one the inhabitants turn into rhinoceroses sounds like a klaxon warning us to trust our own eyes, and not ignore the creeping but comfortable ennui of accepting the ridiculous or the cruel simply because others are.

Rhinoceros is the tale of Berenger (a wonderfully put-upon David Breitbarth), a man beaten down by circumstance who uses alcohol to numb the pain of the absurdity of existence—even before life gets truly absurd. In the first moments of the play, Berenger meets his old friend Gene (Matt DeCaro) for a drink at the café. After Gene upbraids Berenger for his slovenliness, tardiness, and fondness for drink, the peace of the morning is rent by the sounds (terrifically designed by Joseph Cerqua) of a rhinoceros wreaking havoc in the village. Gene seeks a reason for this exceedingly odd occurrence, and though Berenger provides several plausible (and not-so) explanations, Gene is having none of it. Suddenly there is another rhino attack, a cat is crushed, and soon it's the rhinopocalpyse as the town's population begin to inexplicably transform.

But the play is not about transformation, it's about the townspeople's reaction to the strange goings-on. Despite the absurdity of what's happening, the villagers don't seek a solution to the carnage being wreaked by the beasts, but rather find ways to justify and, if not accept, at least acquiesce to the change, just as Ionesco witnessed his friends and associates in 1940s Romania slowly accept (and even embrace) the terror of Nazism as a new norm. The action on stage may be absurd, silly even, but witnessing even fictional characters behaving as they do in the face of horror is chilling when one remembers the casual manner in which too many Americans in 2019 justify the imprisonment of immigrant children or blithely accept falsehoods promulgated by leaders when there is evidence (even photographic or video evidence) that clearly contradicts those falsehoods. When Daisy (Rona Figueroa) casually says "We must move with the times," or "There are many sides to reality—choose the one that's best for you," it induces quiet gasps of recognition from the audience.

The staging has an almost vaudevillian feel, with hanging painted expanses of fabric creating backdrops that actors move through simply by stepping through their seams—until certain moments when the fabric lifts, revealing something far more dramatic and realistic, reinforcing the reality of truth that exists behind the façade of mendacity and capitulation.

Director Frank Galati keeps the pace brisk (the play runs 90 minutes with an intermission not quite halfway through) and benefits from a talented cast. DeCaro's Gene is a bit of a beast from his opening lines, but when the transformation hits him, he sheds (literally) the trappings of the civilized, dapper man he was, and sweats and snorts with a rage that seems to have been building within him since long before the rhinos came to town. As Mr. Papillon, the top man at the office where several characters also work—and which is the site of the most serious rhino attack—Danny Scheie exhibits an officiousness combined with insecurity that is both pitiful and hysterical. He plays with his consonants like he's the last man standing in a dodgeball game and can't get out of his own way, let alone avoid the orbs being flung at him.

In addition to creating the cacophonous and thundering sound effects, designer Joseph Cerqua is also responsible for the music, which uses as its major theme the haunting "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien," written by Charles Dumont and Michel Vaucaire and made famous by Edith Piaf. The song expresses a certain hauteur and disdain for reflection, making for a perfectly ironic soundtrack for a play about going along to get along, even when going along may mean enabling unimaginable horrors.

Rhinoceros, through June 23, 2019, at ACT's Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8:00pm, and Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets (ranging from $15-$110) and more information are available at

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