Le Moyne College tackles the absurdist questions of Eugene Ionesco’s forever strange farce Rhinoceros
By James MacKillop
Director Matt Chiorini makes the challenge, “It’s the funniest play about fascism you’ll see all year—or your money back,” during his curtain speech for Le Moyne College’s Boot and Buskin Theater Group production of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. “Classic” is surely the wrong word for the master’s most-often produced work, so rambunctious and irreverent, but it is a prime model for what we usually call Theater of the Absurd. The paradox of Absurdism, much cited but little seen on local stages, is that it is more often funny equals unsettling than funny equals Ha! Ha! But laughter does indeed tumble out in the first act. And the second act, no laugh riot, faces up to the insidiousness of militant group-think.
Although director Chiorini has made a dazzling mark in his brief appointment at Le Moyne, he’d be quick to share credit for all that makes this Rhinoceros such an attention-grabber. To begin with, the text is a new adaptation by witty contemporary playwright Martin Crimp (Attempts on Her Life), who reshapes several scenes and brings references up to date from 1959, with allusions to feminists and animal rights groups. Secondly, Chiorini has quickly learned how to take advantage of the company’s production assets, notably resident genius/scenic designer Karel Blakeley.
Sets, props and lighting are always critically important, even when not acknowledged, but here the look and feel really shape how meaning is delivered.
The first scene opens on a town square in an unnamed French village, where two men meet at a sidewalk café. Tall, haughty, beret-wearing Jean (Justin Sullivan) berates his tardy and untidy friend Berenger (Jake Ellison). Exactly why Jean and Berenger have to meet is never made clear, but Jean’s criticism becomes more strident. He tells Berenger he’s on the way to becoming a drunk if he doesn’t learn to control himself. These accusations are echoed by a mime (Joey Marzocchi) in whiteface and a horizontally striped shirt. It’s possible, though, that the mime is mocking Jean’s severity.
As sidewalk cafes are in the midst of life’s swirl, Jean and Berenger’s conversation must absorb words flying out of other people’s mouths, such as the shouts of the proprietress (Jade Taggart) and her fre quently angry waitress (Jordan McCarthy).
A flouncing housewife (Alisha Espinosa) carries an actual cat in her arms, apparently more reliable company than that provided by humans.
Despite what they may sound like here, all these characters deliver on Chiorini’s promise to make you laugh. One not yet mentioned, however, delivers both promises of absurdism: amusement that is most unsettling. This is the older man with the white chin beard known as the Logician (faculty actor Orlando Ocampo). He carries a large pad of drawing paper to illustrate what he’s telling us, but the illustrations often work against him. When he starts to tell us of the power of syllogistic logic he shows instead that he does not have a clue about how to spell “syllogism.” When he finally gets to the argument, he makes a dog’s dinner of the proposal. For example: 1. All cats die. 2. Socrates died. 3. Therefore Socrates is a cat. Filled up with vanity at his exposition, the old man also declares, “Logic equals justice.”
Although everyone speaks in racy, American idiom, we are constantly reminded that we’re in a French village. Blakeley’s sets consist of mobile, framed cubes, big enough to stand in, on which are stretched white panels with black and white outlines of what look like Utrillo prints. At the café they evoke the surrounding storefronts. Because they’re on casters and can be snapped together like Tinker Toys, the set can quickly be reassembled to evoke whatever Ionesco and Chiorini call for.
Prompting this disruption is the thunderous entrance, seen in shadow on a screen, of a savage intruder, an actual rhi noceros.
The first response is denial. There’s no zoo nearby, and such a creature should not be seen. Even more unexpected, some citizens seem to have embraced the beasts and mimic their bestial charges. More ominously, a black logo stylizing of the rhino’s two horns begins to spear in public places. Not only are the beasts on the move, but they seek to foment a movement.
In the second act Berenger retreats for comfort to his office, which turns out to be a newspaper, with designer Blakeley’s cubes stacked one upon the other to make cubicles. Keeping with the premise that the action should be taking place at the time of its composition, we heard the sound of clacking typewriters, which in 1959 signaled modernity and efficiency. At the office we meet the ineffectual but officious boss, Papillion (James Barcomb), whose name means “butterfly,” and his co-workers, such as gorgeous Daisy (Lauren Pisano), the love interest. Seen also is the reliable pal Dudard (Tyler Sperrazza) and another know-it-all loudmouth in a beret, Botard (Vincent Randazzo).
At this point the action of Rhinoceros sounds a bit like an upmarket version of movie director Don Siegel’s science-fiction allegory, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), released three years earlier. The film may or may not be about McCarthyism, but Ionesco, who had lived under the German occupation and slimy Vichy collaboration 14 years earlier, has more lethal game. True to his curtain speech, Chiorini glosses Ionesco’s allegory as jack-booted, goose-stepping fascism, replete with Nazi helmets sporting dual horns. We see them first only in glimpses.
Chiorini’s resolution of Ionesco’s intentions changes the dynamic of the lengthy dialogues, later to become monologues, in the second act. In other productions these have been hard to pull off and in the last local production done here they were deadly. Berenger learns slowly what we see well before he does: that others will choose “to go with the flow,” and eventually he will be the only decent human being, drunk or not, that we have left. To ratchet up the tension Chiorini has an invisible drum beating with the sound of distant marching feet. Eventually, these marchers become an army, with all of the cast in helmets and gray suits, the female players retaining the high heels they wore in the first act before their transformation.
Historical Fascism (with a capital F) is not the only form of fascism (lowercase). Ken Burns’ recent PBS documentary Prohibition showed how the Anti-Saloon League imposed its minority position on the whole United States. Members had to become an intellectual flying wedge, focused uncompromisingly on a single issue, and vengeful on any deviance from dogma. They marched in lockstep and created the flow, at least until it proved disastrous. Nazis are easy to pick on, rhetorical bad examples for everyone from Glenn Beck to Al Sharpton. Real danger, Ionesco affirms, lies closer to us. The 1930s-era populist leader Huey Long advised, “If fascism ever comes to America, they will be sure to call it Americanism.”
This production runs through Saturday, Oct. 29. See Times Table for information.