Enter the Rhino: Eugene Ionesco’s Absurdist Classic Stampedes A.C.T.

The cast of Ionesco's 'Rhinoceros' at A.C.T. Directed by Frank Galati. (Kevin Berne)

There’s a curious symbiosis between Edward Albee’s Seascape, which opened at A.C.T. in January, and their current production of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, that extends beyond their use of thick-skinned quadrupeds to illuminate the human condition. Both take the strictly mundane—a vacation at the beach, a day in the office—and turn them into explorations of existence through an absurdist lens. But where Seascape’s director Pam MacKinnon (also A.C.T.’s artistic director) leaned into the realism of a predictable beach holiday before juxtaposing it with the audacity of having giant lizards as two major characters, Rhinoceros’ director, Frank Galati, takes a different approach.

In Galati’s Rhinoceros, the absurd is not merely hinted at, but is integral to the core of the production from the beginning. A garishly painted backdrop of a quaint, French side street—positioned so close to a single cafe table that the actors seem in constant danger of poking through it—sets the tone. As does the heightened, jokey affect of friends Berenger (David Breitbarth) and Gene (Matt DeCaro), who are meeting for coffee and superfluous chit-chat. As they bicker over Berenger’s appearance, Gene hands him a glassless mirror frame to examine himself in, and their waiter pops through the wall to take their order. There’s no gradual descent into surrealism here. Those cards are lying right out on the flimsy table, and flimsier walls for all to see.

Matt DeCaro as Gene and David Breitbarth as Berenger in 'Rhinoceros' at A.C.T.
Matt DeCaro as Gene and David Breitbarth as Berenger in 'Rhinoceros' at A.C.T. (Kevin Berne)

And yet, when the rhinos make their entrance, first as offstage rumblings (sound by Joseph Cerqua) and later as fully-realized giants (courtesy of scenic designer Robert Perdziola), their effect still shocks the imagination, just as it shocks the villagers onstage. There are few hypothetical scenarios more unsettling than that of an agitated, 6000-pound creature stampeding through a quiet neighborhood, and the panic it stirs among the actors feels genuine.

Still, the premise feels in many ways like an elaborate put-on—until the second act, when the human implications of this strange metamorphosis really come to light. As Berenger visits, the normally impeccable Gene begins a startling transformation, conveying the weirdness of his situation with uncontrollable flailing, disco dancing, guttural growling, and with such commitment that when Breitbarch strips off his shirt you actually expect to see tough, rhino hide.

Throughout, as a concerned Berenger tries to soothe and calm his friend, we get a crucial insight into the mentality of a prospective pachyderm: there is pleasure in the transformation. Gene feels powerful, energetic, even sexy. He declares humanism “dead” and runs to the bathroom to check out his burgeoning horn. He embraces his new state of being—mentally and physically—even as vestiges of his old self struggle against it.

David Breitbarth as Berenger and Matt DeCaro as Gene, in 'Rhinoceros' at A.C.T.
David Breitbarth as Berenger and Matt DeCaro as Gene, in 'Rhinoceros' at A.C.T. (Kevin Berne)

It’s this insight that guides the rest of the play to a natural conclusion, albeit in an unnatural world. What’s attractive about belonging to the herd isn’t boring conformity. It’s that there’s true strength in numbers, and even before the rhinos are the actual majority, they command an outsized amount of attention. Larger than life, seemingly indestructible, and made up of a community of friends, neighbors and co-workers, the way of the rhinoceros becomes plausible, even desirable, and soon even Berenger longs to join.

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Granted permission by the Ionesco estate to adapt the script to the modern age has resulted in a leaner, meaner Rhinoceros, minus a brace of cumbersome bit parts, and plus au courant terminology such as “fake news.” Certain lines take on new resonance, as when the boorish Mr. Botard (Jomar Tagatac) at the office patronizes the sweet-natured Daisy (Rona Figueroa), insisting she can’t possibly have seen what she knows she did, (even when a rhinoceros crashes in through the front door and destroys the office staircase as he watches). The aforementioned floorboard-shaking soundscape in tandem with Chris Lundahl’s chiseled lighting adds welcome dimension to the staging, and an aching rendition of “Non, je ne regrette rien,” sung by Figueroa lends an air of melancholy to the madness.

Ensemble of 'Rhinoceros' at A.C.T.
Ensemble of 'Rhinoceros' at A.C.T. (Kevin Berne)

It feels pertinent to reflect on Ionesco’s backstory, when considering the implications of a Rhinoceros for today. Born in Romania, raised in France, and an eyewitness to the rise of European fascism, Ionesco’s lived experience contributed heavily to his recognition of the seductive nature of raw power, and the siren song of capitulation. In this particular production, what’s more frightening by far than the stampede, is the cheery bonhomie of their human brethren who head off to join them with barely a trace of hesitation. We see housewives fling themselves down flights of stairs to be with their transformed husbands, wonky co-workers insisting they have a duty to stick by their peers, and an erstwhile love interest believes that the bellowing of beasts is just a musical number, before drifting away to join their song.

Their lack of resistance to what they have internalized as inevitable offers some uncomfortable insight into how a population might respond to a cool new platform that thrives by “connecting” them, even as it strips them of their right to privacy, or to a system that bankrupts people unlucky enough to require a major surgery without insurance, or to policies that prioritize personal vehicles above mass transportation. It’s not just fascist creep that Ionesco is cautioning against, but intrinsic societal complacency.

Rhinoceros may be absurd. But it’s no joke.

'Rhinoceros' plays through June 23 at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater. Details here.

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