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RHINOCEROS is the play that established Ionesco's international reputation, and it is still one of his best. It is the quintessential Ionesco play: a nightmare of wholly clogged, overrun world. Words, persons, things, and animals proliferate in a slambang of entrances and exits that snowball in a confusion of ceaseless movement. Theatricality and insanity, the two most potent themes of modern theater, are the subject as well as the method. A production of an Ionesco play involves almost as many problems as there are stage directions. The coordination of movement and dialogue must be perfect; the hectic action must have a constant momentum which increasingly bombards the audience without exhausting it; and most of all, the production has got to be funny. Ionesco is a hilarious playwright, but his brand of humor requires virtuoso directing and acting to shine at all. The current Quincy House production of Rhinoceros succeeds admirably in solving these problems.
Berenger, the alcoholic and unkempt anti-hero of many Ionesco plays, is the main character. He is apathetic and lacks the will to live. On a Sunday morning he and his conventional friend Jean are involved in an accident in which one, or perhaps two, rhinos are observed, or believed to be observed, charging down the main street of the sleepy town. Gradually more and more rhinos appear. They are town citizens afflicted with rhinoceritis, a disease which not only makes them change into rhinos but actually makes them want to turn themselves into these strong, aggressive, and insensitive pachyderms. Only Berenger remains immune from this metamorphosis, for he is a special misfit, committed to nothing but pursuing his own harmless pleasures. At the end the whole world has gone over to the rhinos and he is left totally alone, musing on the sad fate of the nonconformist ("People who hang onto their individuality always come to a bad end"). Half-inclined to join the pack charging up and down the streets but now unable to change, he finally determines to pit his weak powers against an increasingly mad society.
It is said that Ionesco wrote Rhinoceros to express his feelings about his native Rumania during the 1930's when his countrymen increasingly fell under the spell of fascism. The play is certainly a tract against conformist and the inhumanity it produces, but it goes far deeper than simple propaganda. If the various townspeople who rationalize and stumble their way into the rhino herd are absurd, Ionesco says, so is Berenger, the one man who holds out. His defiant profession of faith in humanity is farcical rather than heroic, showing that individuality in an indifferent universe can be as futile as conformity. At one point, Berenger even longs for the hard green armor of the beasts, but it is too late to change. He proclaims "I am a monster! I am a monster!" and goes on to make his defiant defense of humanity. Only a performance that makes clear the ambivalence of Berenger's final stance can do full justice to the play.
Arthur Lasky has captured the essence of Rhinoceros and added some brilliant touches of his own to a play which abounds in them. His production is witty and is distinguished by a mastery of the play's swift pace and orchestrated style, and particularly by its generous supply of ingenious business and subtle exploitation of the bare setting. Berenger's increasing isolation, for instance, is cleverly accented by having the rhinos take apart the stage piece by piece until the hero is left on a small island. His use of visual puns and slapstick is very effective. The director does, however, make an unwarranted use of a New Theater style beginning. The play is meant to start off as a slow and sleepy slice of traditional realism and gradually snowball into chaos. Lasky's use of an unconventional beginning undermines this potential effect.
THE ACTING is in general very good. Peter Wright has successfully avoided playing Berenger as a pathetic little idealist who has somehow wandered into an Ionesco play and gives him dignity beneath the sloth. His sleepy Yogi the Bear voice is highly suited for the role and very appealing. The only defect of his performance is that he doesn't seem changed enough and truly defiant in the end. His defiance may be a joke to the audience but it cannot be a joke to himself.
Bill Strong gives a great caricature of the logician who proves, among other things, that Socrates was a cat and his timing in the conversation with the old man is splendid. John Castaldi plays the neurotically conventional Jean with a great deal of energy, but his performance is a bit too cranky to bring out all the humor of the part. The other performances were good, given the weakness of their parts.
The production is well worth seeing. Ionesco's popularity may be on the wane these days, but his best plays- and this is one of them- are always worthy of attention.
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