“Christ! A rhinoceros!”
Similar to the surprise Parisians and tourists experienced when they found themselves face to face with a tiger-like cat near Disneyland Paris earlier this week, the characters in TDPS’s production of “Rhinoceros” are shocked to catch sight of a rhinoceros (a rhinoceros!) stampeding through their quiet French town. Without explanation, without cause, the rhinoceros sets off an epidemic of “rhinoceritis” in the town. People disappear as the rhinos grow in number, a cat is stampeded to death and the town’s sense of civilization drains away faster than Bérenger (James Lewis), our scruffy misfit protagonist, can drain his next drink.
Wacky and not all-together cohesive, “Rhinoceros” was originally written by Eugène Ionesco as an absurdist play reflecting on the theme of conformity and the rise of fascism and communism prior to World War II. Under the direction of Joshua Williams, the play is resurrected on the Durham Studio Theater stage and updated with modern elements like cell phones and remote controls. Familiar though these technological and suburban scenes may be, the production seethes with a restlessness and underlying lunacy that permeates the characters even before the first rhino enters the equation.
The very first aspect of the show the audience is greeted with is the picturesque image of a town square. The lavish set is complex but perfectly constructed so that an entire provincial town street, complete with fruit and vegetable stands, can be broken down and reconstructed into an office interior in the span of a few minutes. As Paris was for Ernest Hemingway a “moveable feast” whose spirit stayed with him even after leaving the city, “Rhinoceros’s” moveable sets linger in the mind long after the play ends.
Likewise, the other major constructed element of the show — the rhinoceroses — are works of art in and of themselves. Without giving away too much, it’s fair to say that this production reimagines the rhinoceros by building the creature out of the debris of human civilization—literally. The carefully constructed beasts and their handlers stomp, snort and glide with uncanny accuracy, which makes watching the show all the more surreal and oddly disturbing.
The show’s producers make the physicality of the characters — from the prequel of wandering characters to the animalistic tendencies some of the characters take on — an incredibly important role for both the development of the story and the depiction of character personality. For the most part, this seems a highly effective method for contrasting the apparent normalcy and sameness of the townspeople with the fantastical change that overcomes their town. But for some actors, the excessive gesturing makes their character appear more uncomfortable than unique.
Cat Lady (Cristina Spruell) puts on a magnificently funny performance (as does her cat) in the opening scenes of the production. And Lewis’s portrayal of Bérenger rightly captures the strange conglomeration of feelings — from laziness to incredulity to bravery — that the scruffy Frenchman experiences throughout the play.
The message of this play — if there is one to be gleaned from this experiment in the unwinding of humanity — seems to be that people conform to norms that they don’t admire, but also never actually resist. For better or worse, people tend towards the herd, towards the collective — and those who resist are left shouting in a language that no one else will understand.
TDPS’s “Rhinoceros” plays through this Sunday at the Durham Studio Theater on Campus.
Anne Ferguson covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].