BWW Review: RHINOCEROS St. Edwards Stages Smartly Stylish Satire
RHINOCEROS was written by Eugène Ionesco in 1959 and staged for the first time in 1960. Considered by many scholars as one of the best examples of The Theatre of the Absurd, this label was, in later years, rejected as too interpretatively narrow. Over the course of three acts, the inhabitants of a small town in France turn into rhinoceroses. Only one human resists this mass metamorphosis and that is the central character, Bérenger, portrayed in this production by Blake Browning. He is an everyman figure who is criticized first for his drinking, lateness, and unkempt appearance and later for his paranoid obsession with the rhinoceroses. The play is widely considered a criticism of the spread of Fascism and Nazism in Europe preceding World War II. It examines such themes as conformity, mass political movements, mob mentality, logic and morality.
The new translation by Martin Crimp, used for this smart stylish St. Edwards production, streamlines the play to two acts and radically reduces the repetitive phrasing found in other translations. These repeated cliches that all of the characters, except Bérenger, use were meant to show a creeping mass mentality. There were originally several phrases that were repeated by characters throughout the play, most of them upwards of twenty times. These clichéd phrases included: "Well, of all things!", "It's never too late!", and "Come on, exercise your mind. Concentrate!". Ionesco was suggesting that by mindlessly repeating cliches instead of engaging in meaningful communication, his characters had lost their ability to think critically and were thus already partly rhinoceros. This new translation, by shortening the play to two acts and avoiding the repetitive elements, winds up as a much more accessible script for modern audiences. The changes lose none of the deeply satirical punch and power of Ioneso's message.
Director David Long has done a masterful job directing this production, creating some absolutely magical moments of staging with his blocking and the creative and physical use of the marvelously minimalistic set created by Leilah Stewart. The set perfectly evokes the time period while containing nothing not absolutely essential to telling the story. It is able to be used in a seemingly endless number of configurations, all while evoking a sort of art deco feel.
The tech is all top notch here from Rachel Atkinson's lighting to Ben Taylor Ridgway's marvelous costumes. Ridgway is also responsible for the gloriously detailed set of rhinoceros heads worn by most of the cast to stunning effect. I have seldom seen masks used better than in this production.
To top off the excellence of this production there is the superb student and guest cast. There isn't a weak performance in this production; however, there are four that were outstanding. Marc Pouhé, as Jean, delivers a dynamic performance that is crowned by his stunning transformation to a rhinoceros that is breathtaking in its physicality. Blake Browning, as Bérenger, the everyman figure, makes a totally credible transformation from loveable goof to desperate resistor. Eric Bradley is terrifically suave as the Logician, glibbly tossing off the twisted thought processes of the character with ease, and showing his clear talent for language plays. David Stahl is superb in the duel roles of Old Gentleman/LittleOld Man. The scene where these four hold the stage during a protracted series of circuitous conversations is mesmerizing. Also worthy of special mention are the charming performance of Catherine Williams as Daisy and the wonderfully rubber faced performance of Michelle Clark as Botard.
Productions of the classics of the absurdist movement rarely get full stagings these days. Austin is fortunate to have an educational institution like St. Edwards when it offers us such glittering examples of theatrical history showing audiences these works still resonate deeply today.
RHINOCEROS by Eugene Ionesco, Translated by Martin Crimp
Running Time: Two Hours including intermission
RHINOCEROS produced by St.Edwards University at Mary Moody Northen Theatre
Sept. 28 - Oct. 8