Reviewed by Lovell Estell III
Pacific Resident Theater
Through September 10
It’s difficult to imagine a timelier and more fitting play for the “Make America Great Again,” era than Eugène Ionesco’s 1959 absurdist satire. The playwright wrote it in response to the alarming ascent of fascism during the first half of the twentieth century. Despite the passage of time, it is arguably more relevant now than when it was first written.
The setting is a provincial town in France, where we first view a town square bustling with the mundane activities of its citizens. Seated at a table are Berenger (Keith Stevenson), hungover and disheveled from a night of drinking, and the painfully fastidious, immaculately attired Jean (director Guillermo Cienfuegos, appearing as Alex Fernandez), who is disgusted by Berenger’s sloppy appearance and uncultured ways, and highly vocal about it.
Then suddenly, the thunderous sounds of hoofs are heard (wonderful sound design by Christopher Moscatiello), as a rhinoceros charges through, disrupting this otherwise commonplace day by knocking over tables and chairs and sending the patrons scattering like scared rabbits. Rocked by confusion and incredulity, the citizens initially don’t quite know what to make of this happening until more rhinoceroses start popping up everywhere, and the grim truth slowly emerges: the populace of the town are exchanging their skins and succumbing, some happily like Berenger’s girlfriend Daisy (Carole Weyers), to “rhinoceritis.”
Ionesco’s play prowls the fertile terrain of allegory and symbol, and does so by turns with subtlety and blunt force, as well as engaging humor. This odd transformation runs all of three hours in three acts, and uses an array of different characters, but it is thoroughly rewarding. Cienfuegos’s staging is top-tier impressive, as are dynamic performances of the ensemble.
In the final scene, Berenger, who is now alone and surrounded by rhinos, screams, “I will not capitulate” — certainly a sentiment to ponder in these thorny, uncertain political times.
Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Boulevard, Venice, Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m., through Sept. 10 www.Pacificresidenttheatre.com/rhinoceros or (310) 822-8392. Running time: three hours with two intermissions.