Review: A.C.T.’s powerful ‘Rhinoceros’ warns of the dangers of conformity

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The unkempt appearance of Berenger (David Breitbarth, right) is one of the many quibbles Gene (Matt Decaro) has with him in Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros,” playing in San Francisco through June 23rd. (Kevin Berne photo)

Eugene Ionesco might not have been thinking of mind-numbing dances like the Macarena or the Floss when he penned his great play “Rhinoceros” in 1959. But that one moment, when Gene feels his skin get a little leatherier, his voice a little more raspy and his moves a bit more schticky, he delves into mindless group dances that often overtakes society and drills us into submission.

The production at American Conservatory Theater of “Rhinoceros,” translated by Derek Prouse is delectably sharp, a production that finds its heart and urgency at the onset, with a very clear vision led by famed director Frank Galati. Everything in the play is big, overbearing and obnoxious. An elephant in the room is one thing, but a rhino in the room is a whole different issue.

This new production has seen its time cut down by half of the original intended running time, only lasting a crisp 100 minutes with an intermission. And while some of the iconic scenes have lost a hint of the play’s original polish, this newfound tightness creates an urgency that grips the scintillating cast, showcasing a play rich with poignancy and hilarity.

The play kicks off with one of those iconic scenes, a meetup at a small French café with the overbearing Gene (a visceral turn from Matt Decaro). When we first meet the dapper gentleman, he is laying into the hungover sloth Berenger (delightful David Breitbarth). Berenger sleeps too much, doesn’t groom the unkempt mop that rests on his head and reeks of alcohol. In the grand scheme of things, Berenger would be best served if he can just get a little of that “Gene” ne sais quoi.

The power of Ionesco’s wonderfully absurd script is the way it uses such a far-fetched idea to make a grander point. A rhinoceros as an animal is huge, weighs thousands of pounds, with a big protruding horn in front of another horn. Yet it also has a tiny brain for an animal of its size. There’s not a lot of varied thought in the mind of a rhino. They charge with brute force and limited vision. In certain ways, rhinos aren’t that much different than humans.

What does that say when the citizenry becomes such an animal? The great power of Berenger, a disheveled everyman, is that he does not fall prey to group think. Society says to comb your hair, don’t drink so much, sit up straight, do more of this, stop doing that. And as we continue to see the danger in this vitriolic mentality, known in our political discourse as the dreaded, uncompromising talking point, the consequences of these actions are devastating. Fake news is nothing new, it just has a new name.

This only captures one aspect of such a thoughtful play. What also resonates is how damn funny it is, a linear, absurdist comedy that features a wide range of humor from the sharply timed ensemble cast.

Fan favorite Danny Scheie as Mr. Papillon is incapable of doing or saying anything that is not hilarious. Jomar Tagatac and his upright, tight demeanor as Mr. Dotard is sharp and regal. Mrs. Boeuf in the hands of Trish Mulholland does well to capture the hysteria that grips the citizens, with a hilarious final moment of chaotic explosion. And Rona Figueroa’s turn as the conflicted Daisy is beautifully layered, each crucial decision full of eerie conflict.

But make no mistake, in the hands of Decaro, Gene is fantastic and a true scene stealer. His moments are calibrated with searing, essential transitions, a physical, visual feast. His ability to make each of these distinct moments that are loaded with a hilarity stripped of all bounds is masterful.

The effects of the play’s aesthetic are top notch. The original music and sound design of Joseph Cerqua are devastatingly rich, with one particular moment making many in the audience jump out of their seats, a sense memory touch of the highest order. And in double duty, the costume design and scenic work of Robert Perdziola is stunning, grand and purposely obnoxious.

The power of Berenger is his refusal to capitulate. His simple demeanor isn’t so simple, yet continues to be slyer by the minute. He shows the challenge in being an original, someone who pushes against conventions which lead to uncompromising conformity.

Put another way, it takes plenty of courage to do the quick step when everyone around you is doing the Macarena.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

American Conservatory Theater of San Francisco presents “Rhinoceros”
Written by Eugene Ionesco
Translated by Derek Prouse
Directed by Frank Galati
The Word: A funny absurdist piece that uses big metaphors to make a grander point, a solid and powerful production.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
Running time: 100 minutes with one intermission
Through June 23rd
The Geary Theater
415 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA
Tickets range from $15 – $110
For tickets, call (415) 749-2228 or visit http://www.act-sf.org

 

 

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