By Eugene Ionesco
Translated by Derek Prouse
Directed by Hal Park
Review by Craig Nolan Highley
Entire contents copyright © 2016 Craig Nolan Highley. All rights reserved.
Mitchell Martin & Ben Park in Rhinoceros. Photo by Isaac Spradlin.
I first heard of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist classic Rhinoceros when I was in the eleventh grade and my drama teacher overheard me telling a friend about a nightmare I’d had the night before. “That sounds like Rhinoceros,” he told me, and proceeded to describe the show’s plot in some detail. It sounded fascinatingly outrageous, and I was determined to see a production of it as soon as possible.
I can’t believe it took some thirty-two years, but I finally got my chance Friday night on the Nancy Niles Sexton Stage in a brazenly hilarious production by the Commonwealth Theatre Center’s Professional Company-In-Residence. It’s a good-looking, well-acted performance of a true, love-it-or-hate-it classic.
Composed in the late 50’s as a satire on the rise of fascism, the play itself is a textbook example of the Theater of the Absurd concept, and its themes of the dangers of conformity and mob-mentality are as subtle as a heart attack. The Royal Court Theater first performed the English version, which later moved to The Strand Theater in London. It was directed by Orson Welles and featuring such luminaries as Laurence Olivier, Joan Plowright, Michael Gough, and Maggie Smith. It moved to Broadway a year later with a cast that included Eli Wallach, Jean Stapleton and Zero Mostel. Mostel also appeared in the 1973 film version opposite Gene Wilder (the only other time the two appeared together outside the original film, The Producers) and Karen Black. Perhaps its most bizarre iteration was the 2008 comedy horror film that replaced the rhinoceroses with the living dead, Zombie Strippers (a loose adaptation taking place in a strip club called The Rhino run by a character named Ian Essko).
The play tells the story of Berenger (here played by an affable Ben Park), an alcoholic layabout in a provincial French village. After an argument with his more elegant and eloquent friend Jean (Mitchell Martin), a pair of rhinoceroses goes thundering through the town, killing a pet and causing a lot of havoc. As the story progresses, it becomes apparent that the villagers are each turning into the horned behemoths, one at a time. At first the idea is rejected as ludicrous, then begrudgingly accepted, and eventually becomes the norm. Through it all Berenger keeps a torch burning for the lovely Daisy (Hallie Dizdarevic), but the prospect of a happy ending becomes less and less likely as the outrageous story unfolds.
The cast give it their all, with particularly strong turns by Park and Martin, who have to take their characters to very different extremes. Martin especially has a powerful scene mid-play that commands attention and is quite riveting. Director Hal Park has coached some really nice, nuanced performances from his whole cast, allowing the seriousness of the play’s message to come through without losing the hilarity inherent in the whole bizarre tale. The roving groups of rhinoceroses lurking about the periphery of the stage also add a nice, eerie touch.
I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to Laura Patterson’s costume design. The period dress is convincing enough, but the abstract rhinoceros costumes are truly something to behold.
Although it took over three decades for me to finally catch a production of this play, I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting. The story played out about as I thought it would, but it was far more literate than what the synopsis would lead you to anticipate. Sadly, with recent events in politics, the show’s dark message has become relevant again. It’s certainly an unusual piece of theater, but looked at through that lens, there is an uneasy tinge of dread underlying the humor.
Featuring Melinda Beck, Heather Burns, Meg Caudill, Oliver Cox, Hallie Dizdarevic, Paul Lenzi, Andrea Lowry, Mitchell Martin, Kellen Murphy, Ben Park, Charlie Sexton, Geraldine Ann Snyder, and Carter Wooton.
December 9 – 17, 2016
Tickets – Evenings: $15 adult, $10 student/senior
Matinees (Saturdays and Sundays): $10 adult, $8 student/senior
Nancy Niles Sexton Stage
Commonwealth Theatre Center
1123 Payne Street
Louisville, KY 40204
Craig Nolan Highley has been active in local theatre as an actor, director and producer for more than 12 years. He has worked with Bunbury Theater, Clarksville Little Theatre, Finnigan Productions, Louisville Repertory Company, Savage Rose Classical Theatre Co., and WhoDunnit Murder Mystery Theatre among others. He has been a member of the Wayward Actors Company since 2006, and currently serves as their Board President. Craig’s reviews have also appeared in TheatreLouisville and Louisville Mojo.