Los Angeles Theater Review: RHINOCEROS (Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice)

by Tony Frankel on August 27, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles

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LIFE IS AN ABSURD BUSINESS

It’s an absurdist masterwork, yet it is rarely produced in the States. A disquieting parable which warns against herd mentality, Eugène Ionesco’s three-act play is a boiling-hot indictment of fascism, written in 1959 on the heels of WWII and the McCarthy hearings. The denizens of a French town transform one-by-one into unrestrained rampaging rhinoceroses, and neither logic nor art nor love can keep these beasts at bay. Screaming “I will not capitulate,” only one person, a frumpy drunkard named Bérenger, remains a human being at the end.

In a world dominated by nationalism, conformity, and bureaucracy, this cautionary tale will never not be relevant, but in the United States of political correctness, it’s especially chilling. The fickle fingers of fascism don’t necessarily come in the form of dictators or goosestepping thugs, but in the suffocation of truth and free speech. Up to and including white supremacists and social democrats, nobody is safe from the nightly news and noisy nosy neighbors who insist on telling each other what they can say and how they can say it. (The fascists behind corporate America are just as frightening.)

However, director Guillermo Cienfuegos isn’t interested in updating the setting for our times; it remains a provincial town somewhere in France before the war, as suggested by Christine Cover Ferro’s mid-century costumes, and David Mauer’s clever morphing set, which is painted trompe l’oeil style with flower boxes and shutters (the accents wander among English, French and American). The most brilliantly terrifying technical aspect is Christopher Moscatiello’s sound design, which had patrons looking over their shoulders to avoid a crash of rhinos (that is indeed the collective noun; I didn’t make it up).

For this to be a shattering experience, the play should be at once fiercely scary and genuinely comical. Instead Pacific Resident Theatre’s production resides in an arena without a point of view, which isn’t to say that it can’t be disturbing—especially when Alex Fernandez (the director as actor) ferociously bellows and gives 110% to his rhinomorph from the immaculately styled Jean into a psychotic quadruped. Unfortunately Keith Stevenson as Bérenger lacks depth and gravitas; he gets sad sack and beleaguered right, but true love and torment and panic never really resonate; the reason why Jean’s transmogrification doesn’t scare the shit out of us is because we don’t see it truly scaring the shit out of Bérenger.

The best scene—that is, the one that is staged and acted the best—takes place in a newspaper office, where Bérenger works with the responsively rational Dudard (an impeccable Jeff Lorch), an irritated non-believer Botard (the officiously delightful Peter Elbling), and Daisy (the lovely Carole Weyers), the girl he loves. Mrs. Beouf (Sarah Brooke) enters the scene as a woman whose husband falls victim to “rhinoceritis” (earlier, the amazing Ms. Brooke fulminated with the right absurdist abandon, and a moustache, as a blowhard logician). It’s a riotous event watching these panic-stricken characters as they try to escape through a window when a rhino has demolished their exit.

There are admirable aspects to this production, but it is decidedly uneven, constantly gaining and losing steam throughout its three-hour running time. Yet plastered outside the theater are reviews by a herd of press fawning over this show with the fervor of large, heavy, thick-skinned, plant-eating, perissodactylous mammals. I will not capitulate.

photos by Vitor Martins

Rhinoceros
Pacific Resident Theatre
703 Venice Boulevard in Venice
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 3
ends on September 10, 2017 EXTENDED to October 15, 2017
for tickets, call 310.822.8392 or visit PRT

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