Romanian-French playwright Eugene Ionesco’s 1959 play “Rhinoceros” is a theater-of-the-absurd fable about the conflict among human beings between impulses towards individuality and desires for conformity.
Ionesco wrote the play in the aftermath of World War II, reflecting on the dangerous emotional dynamics of Nazism that had caught the world off-guard and wreaked so much havoc after igniting in the hearts and minds of many Germans and other Europeans.
On Friday, Berkeley Repertory Theater opened a thoughtful production of this disturbing play on its smaller thrust stage, featuring an all-star Bay Area cast. Berkeley Rep is obviously aware that “Rhinoceros” is worthy of consideration in 2002, as our fast-moving, digital planet erupts in conflicting, chauvinistic spasms of political and religious conformity in the United States and elsewhere.
“Rhinoceros” centers on a frazzled, put-upon Everyman in the form of middle-aged newspaper proofreader Berenger, played smoothly and ably in this production in a largely straightforward dramatic performance by nationally regarded former Pickle Family Circus clown Geoff Hoyle.
Heavy in his soul, but light on his feet, Hoyle’s Berenger is rumpled in his a gray suit, but without the tie which he’s lost during a night of binging. A depressed character who drinks, Berenger expresses his malaise, “I just can’t get used to life.”
Acting as Berenger’s foil is his well-dressed pal Jean (Berkeley Rep vet Jarion Monroe), a smug, self-satisfied friend who lectures Berenger on working hard, having a positive attitude, bucking up, and pulling himself together.
As the two chat in an outdoor café, a rhinoceros suddenly appears on the street and generates a hullabaloo in town. Café patrons marvel at the event, and then debate about what just happened and what it might mean. Later there are more rhinos. Things turn ominous.
Much of director Barbara Damashek’s Berkeley Rep production is an ensemble performance piece containing distinctive creations from the cast of twelve, several of whom play multiple roles. Jennifer Taggart is a stylish French café waitress from the 1950s.
Gerald Hiken is a wonderful timid, confused café patron, and later a dangerous, supercilious, conspiracy-obsessed proofreader. Here he’s a man with all the answers, regardless of the questions.
As a “professional logician,” Warren Keith manages to confuse the café rhino debate until none of the concepts are clear.
Susan Marie Brecht is the trotting, high-heeled ingénue Daisy — who walks more slowly and deliberately by the end of the play. Andrew Hurteau is wonderful as smooth and affable business executive Dudard, reassuring Berenger that the rhinos aren’t as bad as he fears.
The minus to “Rhinoceros” is that it is basically a simple metaphor about conformist impulses, stretched into a full-length play. Much of the dialogue is airless, philosophical debate that turns absurd.
Such dialogue requires the director and cast to create subtexts and private, personal story lines in the characters to humanize the performance and make it interesting. The Rep production is largely successful in this task.
In its initial lift-off, Damashek gives the ponderous dialogue a light touch and a colorful staging. The moments of chaos are well-orchestrated.
Christopher Barreca’s lively scenic design creates a magical world that at times is like a human performance sculpture. Patches of orange paint surreptitiously appear on the ground following early rhino sightings. Stacks of newspaper fly into a printing shop.
But “Rhinoceros” has a formulaic and predicable second half, and here the production bogs down. The play makes its basic point again and again, and tends to telegraph its turning points in advance.
The conjugal prowl between male and female near the end is two-dimensional gender politics from an earlier era, nowadays cartoon-like at the moment when “Rhinoceros” needs a final, desperate emotional boost.
Playwright Ionesco was born in Romania in 1909 to a French mother and Romanian father who fought and separated. He grew up in both countries.
A literary critic, at age 40 he wrote his first play “The Bald Soprano,” which was produced in Paris in 1950. All of his playwriting from the 1950s uses a didactic writing style that seems common among former literary critics turned playwright, such as Bernard Shaw and Tom Stoppard.
“Rhinoceros” mixes the personal and the political. Berenger suffers from depression and alcoholism, ailments that Ionesco himself experienced.
And although it’s sometimes hard to know who, exactly, is crazy in this world of “collective hysteria,” as Ionesco described his play, its portrayal of a dangerous epidemic of social conformity is something we would be well advised to guard against today.
Planet theater reviewer John Angell Grant has written for “American Theatre,” “Backstage West,” “Callboard,” and many other publications. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Rhinoceros,” presented by the Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison Street, through March 10. Call (510) 647-2949, or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.