ONE HORN OR TWO? Ionesco’s play examines our existential plight.
Ever have days when you're just not yourself? Eugène Ionesco's brilliantly conceived Rhinoceros extends that notion to the snapping point of ridiculousness, and it's getting a delightful rendition by the Brown University/Trinity Rep MFA theater programs at the Pell Chafee Performance Center (through March 9).
The price of conformity was never so expensive, the world learns when people start turning into rhinoceroses. But then again, much of the advantage of any herd instinct is collective comfort, so maybe they feel it's a bargain after all.
A little context. Theatre of the Absurd, which a critic named the movement the year after this 1959 play, was a creative expression of Existentialism, the philosophical reaction to such absurd human interactions as war. Exemplars of the style included Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet, and Rhinoceros pokes gentle fun at the latter, having a cat of that name become the sole victim of the clumsy beasts. Ionesco doesn't stop there — in a lighthearted digression, he has characters briefly praise his own plays like a trio of theatergoers at tea.
We start out with antihero Berenger (Greg Fallick) hung over one Sunday morning at a sidewalk café. His office job is so tedious that he overdoes it every weekend, though he insists he's not an alcoholic. A friend shows up, Jean (Ted Moller), an office mate who couldn't be more of a contrast: brightly energetic, bursting with joie de vivre and optimism, formally well-dressed. His way of pulling Berenger together is to run a comb through his hair and dress him up with an extra tie he happens to have in his suit pocket.
Suddenly, unseen to us, their eyes follow an outlandish surprise thundering by. Passersby exclaim as one: "Well, of all things!" Berenger tries to make sense of the sight, a problematic tendency he has, suggesting: "Perhaps it's been hiding . . . in a surrounding swamp." The vague fearfulness he'd said was behind his drinking to comfort himself is now tangible.
But there are straws to grab at. The Logician (Ben Chase), ridiculous in a red fez and pretentious manner, offers help. A typical syllogism of his: a), all cats are mortal; b), Socrates was mortal; c), therefore, Socrates was a cat. He doesn't actually solve the problem of the rhinoceroses or why they appeared, instead he is smugly satisfied just to clarify how people should rephrase the question.
As for the concerned witnesses, the only question they get stirred up over is whether that rhinoceros had one horn or two, and whether that meant it was African or Asian. But the beasts start multiplying and soon are as populous, and apparently harmless, as pigeons. Office mate Botard (Matt E. Russell) appears as a character type as opinionated as the Logician, as he refuses to believe in French rhinoceroses, despite adamant eyewitness testimony by others at work. Berenger eventually gets some comfort, in the form of the opposite sex, but Daisy (Sylvia Kates) proves worrisome.
The last act of this 2-1/2-hour evening drags dreadfully, thanks to excessive concerns of the playwright to explicate his subtext. Ionesco couldn't leave absurd enough alone; he had to have his characters go on and on after the climax that ends Act II. Why settle for bon mots when beaucoup can do?