Ionesco’s ‘Rhinoceros’ charges into Zellerbach

Jean-Louis Fernandez/Courtesy

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Imagine striding along the grand-rue of a tranquil French village, whereupon you suddenly cross paths with an agitated, stampeding rhinoceros trampling everything in its way. What would you think? In essence, this is the question asked by Eugene Ionesco in the first act of his supremely absurdist play “Rhinoceros,” performed by Paris’s magnificent Theatre de la Ville and presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall this past weekend.

Though visibly flustered, the characters failed to appreciate the magnitude of the event, focusing on trivial consequences such as spilling their wine and the trampling of a woman’s cat. Only Berenger, a reproachable drunkard, and Jean, his proud and articulate friend, seemed to ponder the logical puzzle of a rhinoceros rampaging in the middle of town.

Surmounting a monumental theatrical challenge, the Parisian troupe excelled in grounding a play so incongruous and bizarre that it grants the term “theater of the absurd” an entirely new connotation. Serge Maggiani was delightful in his portrayal of Berenger, responding to the rhinoceros catastrophe with the polite bewilderment befitting the central figure of an absurdist play. His ability to remain constant while other characters became unsettled by the rhino invasion, or turned into rhinos themselves, underscored the theme of mass-conformism explored in the play.

As the plot progressed, the ensemble assumed the leading role while the stage around Berenger transformed into a dangerous, rhinoceros-ruled world. Uncertainty and confusion reigned under this metamorphism, with characters fiercely arguing whether or not the townspeople were actually capable of turning into menacing, charging pachyderms. With their actions ranging from quizzical banter to enraged and frightened physicality, the cast members were tremendously adept at forming a new, chaotic reality on stage. This testifies to the skill of director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, whose vision made tangible an abstract and metaphoric storyline.

Perhaps even trickier than devising the interaction between characters in such an absurdist play is the staging of the piece. In this particular production, each scene was put together in an intricate, dynamic way.

Notably, the office in which the second act took place was a platform elevated ten feet or so above stage-level, whose sides rotated to form a steep slope when a rhinoceros barged into the building. During the climax of the play, moreover, the back of the stage was populated with eerie, floating rhinoceros heads.  These sights helped bring Ionesco’s daft, unstable world to life.

As if there wasn’t enough confusion inherent in “Rhinoceros,” the play was performed entirely in French, with English supertitles appearing on a screen high above the stage. At first it seemed uncertain this would work, as audience members were forced to crane their necks, eyes darting from stage to screen and back. But the pacing of the play soon slowed down, and as the lines grew easier to follow, the French became more engaging with its delicate intonations and phrasings. The combination of French dialogue and English supertitles ensured neither meaning nor emotional undertones were lost to the audience.

Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” is commonly interpreted as being about fascism, with the rhinos representing extreme conformism and the transformation into the new “natural.” Fascism enters in an untamed, uncultivated form, trampling everything in its path and sweeping up new followers.

Theatre de la Ville’s production of “Rhinoceros” captured all the gravity of this situation, while still stepping back to comment on its uncanny, and even comical absurdity. It was a deep understanding of the play shared by cast and director that enabled Theatre de la Ville to be so eloquent and powerful in its performance of the piece.

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