The mind can easily wander wondering what rhinos mean.
In Ionesco’s 1950 absurd black comedy, Rhinoceros, set in a small French town, the titular pachyderms begin to appear and swoop in, one then the other, eventually becoming a thunderous herd. The townspeople are terrified but fascinated, and one by one they succumb to groupthink and turn into rhinos themselves. When written, the play was an allegory about credulity towards Fascism and Nazism before and during World War II. Pointless Theater has just opened an entertaining production on and off with a new translation and direction by Frank Labovitz, and the experience of watching it prompts a provocative question: Who are today’s rhinos?
There’s plenty of time during the play to think about that. Ionesco’s script is structured around several subjects in a series of less than scintillating scenes separated by extremely loud and startling incidents of rhinoceros invasion – signaled in the Useless production by stunning lighting (Hailey Laroe), pounding sound (Aj Johnson) and ingenious puppets (Jess Rassp). The rhinoceros interludes are so much fun that we look forward to them. The rhino’s sound design alone is so clever – shaking kicks, impact collisions, trumpets and roars, horns and even a sax – that he almost becomes another character. And the ensemble sequence of masked rhinos at the top of act two is a reward worth kicking out of the intermission.
After a beautiful pre-show soundtrack by Edith Piaf, the first scene takes place in a quaint French café (designed by James Raymond), populated by patrons, passers-by and staff in colorful cartoon costumes (Kitt Crescenzo). Here we meet the play’s main character, a man named Berenger (Mary Myers). He’s joined by his sarcastic friend Jean (James Raymond), who berates Beringer for being disheveled, drunk, weak-willed, and a disgrace. Bérenger doesn’t disagree, but in his own defense he talks about how uncomfortable he is with his boring and burdensome life.
Berenger’s character arc during the play is what keeps him going – he starts off as a hot mess and in the end morphs into a quasi-hero – so the choice to play the crucial gender role n not escape notice. In fact, the character grows increasingly interesting in Myers’ quick-witted performance, who remains engaging and likable throughout.
A scene about the world of office work that numbs Berenger comes next. He is interrupted by the off-stage crash of a rhino’s demolition of the staircase, which forces the terrified co-workers to escape through the window via a fire ladder.
When Bérenger goes to Jean to inquire about him, he finds a disturbing sight: Jean’s skin turns green and a bump has started on his forehead. The scene calls for Jean to become a rhinoceros before our eyes, and Stephen Murray’s virtuosic performance of transformation – braying, charging, roaring, sniffling, scaring Berenger’s daylight – is among the show’s highlights. A later scene in Bérenger’s house offers an opposite but equally exceptional acting performance as we see him terrified that he too will turn into a rhinoceros and desperately try do not for.
There is an absurd, scattered and alogical tenor to much of Ionesco’s script, which Labovitz’s translation preserves; it’s replete with intentional repetitions, cliches, and a lingering inconsistency that stands in stark contrast to the disturbing chaos gathering outside. Meanwhile, Bérenger, grappling with all that is going on, comes to confront who he is and who he should be in the character test posed by social breakdown. His urgent final monologue is an air of individual moral courage. “I will not capitulate! are his resounding last words.
So who are rhinos today? An obvious answer is all the Trumpian supporters of alt-right white nationalism Q-Anon MAGA, who testify to exactly the “collective psychosis” the script refers to. A more difficult question, however, is this: who will resist them? And what does the required moral courage look like?
There is a lightness to Ionesco’s piece; despite the gravity of its allegory, the scenario is not at all a tract. In fact, it’s often a wink, like when, in the first scene, the playwright includes an ironic take on himself. The Labovitz translation follows suit with its own clever product placement:
JEANS : Instead of spending all your available money on drinks, isn’t it better to buy theater tickets and see an interesting play? Have you seen the work of Pointless Theater Company?
BERENGER: No Alas ! I have only heard of them….
JEANS : There is a show going on right now. Enjoy it.
Duration: 2h15 including 1 intermission of 15 minutes.
Rhinoceros! runs through April 24, 2022, presented by the Pointless Theater Company performing at the Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th Street NW, Washington, DC. A PWYC performance will take place on April 7, 2022. To purchase tickets ($25 for students and seniors, $39 for general admission) and for more information, visit pointlesstheatre.com
COVID Safety: Proof of full vaccination is required for entry. Masks are mandatory when not eating or drinking. Pointless Theater’s ticketing policies and COVID protocols are here.
the Rhinoceros! the program is online here.
An original translation of Eugène Ionesco’s key piece
Translated and directed by Frank Labovitz
MARY MYERS, Berenger
MOMO NAKAMURA, Marguerite
LEE GERSTENHABER, Old Gentleman/Botard
NICK MARTIN, Logician/Firefighter
NICHOLAS TEMPLE, Waiter/Dudard
NIUSHA NAWAB, cafe manager
MELISSA CARTER, Grocer’s Wife/Mrs. Beef
MADELINE KEY, housewife
STEPHEN MURRAY, Jean
JOSHUA WILLIAMS, Grocer/Butterfly
FRANK LABOVITZ, director
JAMES RAYMOND, Scenographer
HAILEY LAROE, Lighting designer
JESS RASSP, Puppet design
KITT CRESCENZO, Costume designer
AJ JOHNSON, sound designer
TOMMY SHERROD, Composer
KRISTEN GEATZ, stage manager
JACKIE LITTMAN, Poster Art
Pointless Theater returns to the stage with a new translation of ‘Rhinoceros!’ (new stories)