Theater Review: RHINOCEROS (A.C.T. in San Francisco)

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by Harvey Perr on June 6, 2019

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


The first scene in the A.C.T. revival of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist masterpiece Rhinoceros, directed by Frank Galati with razor-sharp clarity and breakneck swiftness as a comic duel between two life-long friends, the fuzzy minded alcoholic Bérenger and the elegant know-it-all Jean, deliciously played by the casually woeful David Breitbarth and the nothing-can-stop-me and just-try-me-from-being-grand Matt DeCaro, is as good as comedy gets.

So when they see a rhinoceros break into town, as some citizens in the early days of fascism might watch as the brown shirts trample on neighboring property, it is as if we are watching two guys being shocked and dismayed and, at the same time, going their merry and very predictable way. When we enter the workplace of Bérenger and his brilliantly cast co-workers, things get a bit messier when a rhinoceros destroys its staircase and keeps the staff prisoners, but remain as funny as anything one might encounter in a burlesque sketch. As a matter of fact, the first act is a dazzling picture of a world getting darker and more insane without losing its surface frothiness that pretty much defines the Ionesco view of the world.

Someone as old as myself will never ever forget Zero Mostel’s Jean transforming himself into a rhinoceros with terrifying comic ferocity in Act II, but for a new generation too young to even remember Mostel and his particular brand of genius, Mr. DeCaro will seem every bit as hilariously grotesque doing exactly the same thing. It is reassuring to see how outrageously silly a nightmare can be when it bares itself as a public display of humanity run amok.

It is when farce turns to the tragedy of Everyman, which is whom Bérenger most certainly becomes, trying to resist becoming part of the thunderous herd of rhinoceroses that seems to be taking over the world, that things go crazily awry. In the last twenty minutes, Galati seems to have lost control of Ionesco’s state of mind, and switches gears in a disturbing and confused manner.

Despite Breitbarth’s simple and yet strong approach, we never really see the contradictory forces within him which will either reveal his strength as a man or push him towards surrender to the mass hysteria of what one might call rhinocerism or fascism. The problem here, I think, lies with Daisy, the sweetheart of Bérenger’s dreams. Rona Figueroa is a lovely actress and a great singer whose version of one of Édith Piaf’s signature songs, “Non, je ne regrette rien,” blows the audience away, but she doesn’t seem to have the sense of humor to convey the daffiness of Daisy and offers Breitbarth less than the perfect balance to play against.

And there is that last line of the play, which may be a faithful translation of what Ionesco wrote, but is the one blatant error of Derek Prouse’s otherwise excellent rendition in being too literal and too inexpressive of the high moment of tumultuous decision of that final moment, and, in addition to that, instead of a whiplash ending that a blackout might have provided, the curtain comes down slowly and heavily, the impact is deadened. What we are left with, after an evening of pure delight, is puzzlement. Perhaps that is what Galati intended, and, if so, it would be worth having an argument with Galati about it.

One cannot deny, on the whole, however, that this a solid revival of a play that not only gets better with age, but which may have been prescient in seeing what was to come: the haphazard world we are living in today where the possibility of fascism on the rise is history repeating itself. And, until that moment of reckoning comes, this is largely an evening of unrestrained hilarity.

photos by Kevin Berne

American Conservatory Theater
A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street
ends on June 23, 2019
for tickets, call 415.749.2228 or visit A.C.T.

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