by Eugene Ionesco
November 24-27, 2004
Eugene Ionesco's classic play, Rhinoceros, is a classic largely because it's such a wonderful example of how theatre of the absurd can actually be about something. It was a landmark when it was first performed in 1959, and most people who've studied theatre at all know the text, and remember the wonderful metaphor of people turning into rhinoceroses the way tennis players in the Monty Python sketch turned into Scotsmen, and the way Ionesco's language made "rhinoceritis" into a social movement and a disease at the same time, showing, people thought at the time, how it could have happened that a phenomenon like fascism had people all over Europe running into the streets to join the parade.
In fact, it seems pretty clear, a few decades on, that really Rhinoceros was as much a commentary on the uptight conformism of the late fifties as a reflection on the fascism of a quarter century earlier. The various characters' reflections on how maybe it's us, not the crowds of rhinoceroses out on the streets, that are the weird ones, and maybe we should ask ourselves whether we're really so special, are a great deal more illuminating about the world of The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and The Lonely Crowd than they are of the Munich Beer Hall putsch or the Nazi rallies in Nuremburg.
It's clear, though, that the play retains both kinds of resonance in 2004, as we realize we live in a society which is increasingly intolerant of difference, and full of people who are utterly convinced of the rightness of what they believe and do, and are prepared to trample others who happen to get in the way. There are, that is to say, lots of reasons a university theatre company might want to face the challenges of the script.
And it is challenging. Most people who remember the basic metaphor probably have forgotten that the play is constructed inside a powerfully realistic theatre convention. Ionesco's descriptions of his stage settings are as elaborate as any you're likely to read (quite unlike the stark, no-worldly, almost Beckettian simplicity of a piece like The Bald Soprano). In Rhinoceros, Ionesco assumes the sort of stage machinery you might find at a full-on professional house, with elaborate street scenes, office complexes, and people's apartments and bedrooms being dropped from a fly gallery, people's skins turning green and horns appearing on their foreheads, and rhinoceros horns popping through doors.
Director John Ball's company, drawn from UNB's theatre course, take on the challenge with a will, and if they don't always entirely succeed, they come close enough to make the current production of Rhinoceros more than worth seeing. Interestingly, though they don't really solve the problem of the elaborate sets (there's a substantial amount of time during the evening taken up with moving walls around and getting large items of furniture on and off stage), they do add something that Ionesco didn't call for, and which works with remarkable power: rhinoceroses. Where Ionesco keeps them offstage (except for heads which magically appear in people's apartments), this production fills Memorial Hall with a thundering, bellowing herd of rhinos (the cast, in stylized rhino helmets and coveralls). As they run up and down the aisles and across the back of the stage, we come almost to understand the longing in various characters' faces, looking out a window and wishing they, too, could join the herd.
In the midst of the thundering herd, as the society around them withers away with character after character taking up the vocation of rhinoceros (or, in the view of others, succumbing to the disease of rhinoceritis), the play's large cast copes quite successfully with Ionesco's complex script. The central character, Berenger (played with genuine pathos and discipline by Chris Nyarady), a Chaplinesqe -- or perhaps Woody Allenish -- victim, loses his friends and co-workers, and the love of his life, to rhinocerism, and is left, finally, and hopelessly, perhaps the last human in the village, proclaiming both his commitment never to capitulate, and looking longingly out the window at all the happy, mindless rhinoceroses. His rumpled, ineffectual humanity is contrasted from the opening with the pristine dandyness of his friend Jean, and the dedicated work ethic of his boss and co-workers, and the unattainable beauty and simplicity of "Miss Daisy," with whom he's not quite hopelessly in love. Jean, who begins as the dandy, lecturing Berenger about the pathetic ineffectuality of his life, is the one character we see descend into, shall we say, rhinocerosity: Michael Holmes-Lauder skilfully brings us both the arrogant dandy and the broken hulk who during one wonderful scene loses his humanity and his voice, and gains a greenish skin and the loping gallop that characterizes the rhinos, all the while retaining the positive arrogance that made one think of a rhino from the very beginning.
Berenger's co-workers (Kyle MacKenzie as Botard, Ryan Drost as Dudard, and Allison Young as the boss, Ms. Papillon), all convey with authority the exaggerated, almost comic-book characters that Ionesco wants. Particularly effective is Dudard's argument with Berenger that maybe "it's just a matter of personal preference," and "after all, it's not fatal. Some diseases are good for you," as we can watch him convincing himself that maybe he, too should get out in the street and stampede with the rest.
Brianne Gulley's Miss Daisy is appropriately naive and virtuous, and her longing as she, too succumbs to the lure of the herd is almost touching (we laugh at the same time as we're appalled at her rationalizations: from "Guilt is a dangerous symptom. It shows a lack of purity" to "we must try to understand the way their minds work, and learn their language," to "perhaps we're the abnormal ones," and all the way to "they're like gods." In general, the seventeen-member cast works well together (and works with amazing energy, as well, to change sets, and to create that remarkable herd of rhinos). And this is only perhaps the second time I've ever thought of the three-foot height of the Memorial Hall stage as an advantage: the escape from the office whose staircase has been demolished by a rhino works very well up through a window, and down a stepladder to audience level.
I have to admit that many of the production's conventions don't quite work -- Ionesco's overlapping conversations are made comprehensible by having pairs of characters alternately freeze while other speak, but not consistently; the lighting sometimes becomes surrealistic and obvious, but, I thought, not always in the same sort of situations; freeze-and-blackout is used where Ionesco calls for a curtain, but not always. It's difficult to think of these, like the clever use of two-sided flats for the back walls of the various sets, as choices rather than desperate measures. But this is pretty trivial when put in the balance with the opportunity to see this masterpiece made relevant to our lives again, and to make us laugh at images that are, at the same time, pretty chilling.