Director Tina Brock brings spot-on casting, lightning-quick pacing, and non-stop hysteria (of both the panicked and hilarious varieties) to Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium’s FringeArts production of Eugène Ionesco’s RHINOCEROS. The devastating consequences of mindless conformity, social apathy, and turning a blind eye to a growing threat are the important themes of the darkly comic Theater of the Absurd masterpiece. Though the 1959 classic was originally intended as a critical reflection on the unchecked surge of Nazism pre-World War II, its messages of personal responsibility and ethical humanism remain relevant today, and Brock’s expert absurdist ensemble captures its timeless truths and sardonic wit in spades.
When a provincial French town is faced with an epidemic of “rhinoceritis” (humans transforming into beasts), its citizens at first react with alarm, but then apply questionable logic to the problem, and eventually accept and embrace the mass metamorphosis, charmed by the invading animals into a defeatist “if-you- can’t- beat-‘em- join-‘em” attitude and a survivalist instinct to number among the majority. Distracted by nonsensical syllogisms and pedantry (Was the animal Asiatic or African? Did it have one horn or two? Did you see a single rhino or two different ones?), the tightly-wound quarrelsome characters evade the real issues and imminent dangers, while the slovenly Bérenger alone, who at first suffers from immobilizing ennui and uses alcohol to cope, comes to recognize his responsibility to the future of humankind and remains committed to his own individuality and moral fiber.
Each and every member of the cast delivers a perfect balance of full-blown ridiculousness and profound meaning to Ionesco’s complex script and demanding roles. Steve Lippe as the Logician, Bob Schmidt as Botard, and Paul McElwee as the Old Gentleman skillfully epitomize the absurdity of faulty reasoning and the failure of structured hypothetical logic to solve actual problems. Jerry Rudasill (as the Waitress) and Tomas Dura (as the wives to Michael Dura’s Grocer and Old Man) make sidesplitting appearances in drag, in terrific costumes by Erica Hoelscher. The multi-talented Hoelscher also designed the smart set, inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci’s perspective sketch for The Adoration of the Magi (recalling the height of civilization, knowledge, and Humanism, as a telling disparity with the prevailing animalistic lunacy in the play). Maryruth Stine as Mrs. Boeuf happily joins her husband as one of the first in the village to make the change from person to beast, and Kirsten Quinn as Daisy at last succumbs to the switch, deftly manifesting the physical and psychological signs of her mutation.
The superb David Stanger and Ethan Lipkin shine in their starring roles as the antithetical friends Jean and Bérenger. Stanger is ever masterful in his characterization of the egomaniacal dandy, with every gesture, posture, facial expression, and tone of voice exhibiting self-assumed superiority and condescension. His consummate conversion from an emotionally volatile man into the tough-skinned, bellowing creature is a revelation. Lipkin is eminently sympathetic as the lone exemplar of ascending virtue; he is funny, sad, and ultimately meritorious, delivering the closing soliloquy with heartfelt conviction, as he rejects his society’s widespread decline into bestiality with the powerful proclamation, “I am not capitulating!”
Theater of the Absurd doesn’t get any better than this, and IRC, now in its eighth season, is THE company to watch. [Skybox at The Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St., 3rd floor]; September 2-21, 2014. http://fringearts.com/event/eugene-ionescos-rhinoceros-18/.
Read Phindie contributor Jessica Foley’s review here.