‘Rhinoceros’ Stampedes the Stage
If one thing can be said about “Rhinoceros,” it’s that the show is not what you’d expect. Written by Eugene Ionesco and performed in UC Irvine’s secluded Grotowski Barn, “Rhinoceros” confused, amused, and rampaged in its own right. The Barn, a studio lurking behind the Anteater Recreation Center, is an uncommon performance space, likely owing to its isolation from the rest of the campus. However, this only made the show particularly singular, with a small house, a runway-style stage and a picturesque window to outside.
The author Ionesco’s work is generally recognized as Absurdist, in a similar vein as Samuel Beckett, author of “Waiting for Godot.” So perhaps it comes as less of a surprise that, in the course of “Rhinoceros,” all of the characters (except the lead) turn into rhinoceroses. Throwing realism out the window, the play embraces a fantastical situation while exploring themes of identity and generally just being silly.
In fact, aside from the transformations into rhinos, the majority of the play involves arguments or misunderstandings. The entire affair throws the frivolity of everyday conversation into embarrassingly sharp relief. If it doesn’t hit you that you’ve had an argument about something equally as meaningless as whether you saw the same rhino go by twice or two different rhinos go by once each, then perhaps you flatter yourself that your conversations are that important.
The play grapples with the rapid onset of a new movement, and can easily be contextualized to modern settings just by substituting the word ‘rhinoceros’ for any movement or fad. The neurotic main character Berenger, played by fourth-year Jessica Spaw, struggles to resist this sheep mentality and stay cool in a world going mad. Spaw’s performance captured well the character’s mounting paranoia as her peers gave up humanity for the highly appealing rhino way of life.
Being a production partly about social change, the characters’ transformations into rhinos became the driving point of the show. Berenger’s friend Jean (MFA student Daryn Mack) exemplified this as his already-violent character sinks farther into that rage, impressively losing his rational demeanor and charging about viciously, until his full change is achieved.
It came as an interesting twist that the attire of the rhinos consisted of a black trench-coat and a pair of Groucho Marx glasses, complete with bushy eyebrows and mustache. The directorial choice discovered an unexpected avenue of absurdity. Rather than bluntly alluding to some popular movement, or even just using actual rhino masks, the Marx glasses suggested some kind of ridiculous comic fad yet unseen, which played well against the commentary of the remaining humans describing these “majestic beasts.” The creative physicality of the rhinos combined some sense of the visceral with an element of slapstick – equally fitting.
Each transformation taking place onstage was unique and creative, taking some trait of the character and exaggerating that into an epic change. However, while the characters may have seemed authentic and dynamic, some of the traits coming out in their metamorphoses almost came as a surprise, rather than being a natural development. As a result, it felt like some of these characters could have been more clearly defined from the start, sacrificing a more realist performance for specific archetypes.
The cast as a whole achieved excellent comic timing and delivery, discovering many opportunities for both physical and verbal humor in the nuances of the script. They occasionally tripped over the language, unsurprising considering the fast-paced wordplay. Still, the performers achieved the best response when the lines were well-adapted to their speaking patterns. The window, rigged with a mic, allowed them to charge by outside in rhino regalia, or perform the acts prompted by the script, whether it’s making prank calls or smacking into the window glass.
However, the show was not without its shortcomings. Despite being cut substantially, “Rhinoceros” still found lulls where it dragged. Berenger’s closing monologue trundled along painfully after the excitement of the rhinos onstage. Similarly, the budding relationship between Berenger and Miss Daisy (fourth-year Alexa Green) lacked the luster of a youthful romance. Their final scene together, concluding with Daisy’s transformation into a rhinoceros, couldn’t capture the attraction and subsequent heartbreak suggested by the dialogue.
Ultimately, “Rhinoceros” was a different and exciting challenge to be seen at UCI. Unfortunately, the production at times seemed uncertain of itself, and in turn made the audience uncertain of what it was. It clung just a little too much to realist practices to fully embrace a zany absurdity, and stumbled slightly over the length and pacing of the words. But even so, it was hilarious in a refreshingly different way from traditional realist plays.