Aquinas College’s Theatre program will be playing Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” for its second production of the season (after October’s “The Terrible Girls”) at the Performing Arts Center from Thursday, Nov. 30 to Sunday, Dec. 3.
I attended a rehearsal, where I got to watch the first half of the play. It starts at a cafe in Grand Rapids—director Randy Wyatt adapted it in such a way that it all happens right here and right now—where Berenger (Brock Gabbert) is relatably hung-over and late for a Sunday brunch with his friend Jean (Eric Hand). Even as Jean and Berenger argue about civilization—and even as civilization plays out around them in the cafe, with, for example, a logician (Lukas Isenga) tutoring his student (Tanner Kosten)—a rhinoceros races down the road outside the cafe.
When everyone returns to their meals, the conversation turns to the rhinoceros they saw, but, within minutes, another rhinoceros runs by—and this one kills a cat. No real cats are harmed in the staging of the play, so please don’t worry about that—but apparently there are more rhinoceros where the first two came from.
The second act starts the following morning at Berenger’s work, where his co-worker Lumpen (Aaron Skorka) is arguing that rhinoceros running loose in Grand Rapids is absurd; a second co-worker, Stinger (Kaeleb Cogswell) is saying it must be true; and a third co-worker, Daisy (Bryanna Lee)—who is also Berenger’s love interest and was in the cafe when the rhinoceros tore through the previous day—is trying to save the late-as-usual Berenger from the wrath of their boss, Mrs. Butterfly (Bridgette Slezak). Another co-worker, Boeuf, hasn’t shown up for work, but Mrs. Boeuf (Megan Lareau) comes to say her husband is ill—and adds that she was chased by a rhinoceros on her way to the office. The rhinoceros that chased her turns out to be none other than her husband, he destroys the staircase to the office, and everyone has to be rescued by the fire department (Devin Boxey).—That’s how far I got to see.
How will it end?—You’ll have to find out for yourself. All Wyatt told me is that Berenger, the protagonist, is “trapped in an alienating farce,” while perhaps the most depressing part of the play is what happens to his friend Jean.
Ionesco’s immediate allusion was to the rise of the Iron Guard in his native Romania, but he wrote the play generic enough to apply to other contexts too, such as to Nazism in Weimar Germany. He wrote the play in 1959—almost two decades after the fascism he was writing about had peaked—so at the time of writing he may have thought that the world had seen the last of his subject. It’s a curious new twist to play it right now.
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