Back in 1959, when Eugene Ionesco wrote his comic-absurdist play Rhinoceros, the idea of people exchanging their human skins for the rough hide of animals and turning into actual stampeding and ravenous rhinoceroses was a real hoot. But these days, too many politicians and other citizens are pulling on the skin of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and alt-Reich acolytes to see if it fits. And suddenly, it's not so funny anymore.
The subversive power of theater is that it can make us laugh in the face of real existential threats. And that laughter, with any luck, can turn into change. So it is worth paying attention to this convergence-continuum production of the often wordy Rhinoceros.
Moving among various cosmopolitan settings, from a cafe to an office, and then to the bedroom of a lead character, we see ordinary citizens startled as one rhinoceros, then more, begin charging down the streets and brushing against store windows. Where did they come from? Who knows, but as humans usually do, they fixate on small details instead of the overall import.
As a result, long discussions are launched about whether the invading rhinoceroses have one horn or two, and if they're Asian or African. Meanwhile, people start disappearing because, it seems, they are turning into rhinoceroses themselves, giving up their humanity for herd mentality. Eventually, protagonist and Everyman archetype Berenger is left alone to contemplate what has become of the civilized society of which he was once a barely functioning part.
A capsule description of Ionesco's themes can sometimes not do justice to his writing, since it all begins rather subtly. The elegant and refined Jean is meeting his scruffy friend Berenger for a sip of something, and Jean is busy noting his pal's shortcomings when their conversation is interrupted, momentarily, by the aforementioned quadruped.
In order to achieve this effect in con-con's tiny playing space, director Jonathan Wilhelm's set design has carved out a narrow track semi-circling the audience where actors, playing rhinoceroses, can stomp and snort accompanied by thundering sound effects designed by Beau Reinker. When on stage, the actors are surrounded by all-white set pieces and props, giving the various locations an eerie sameness.
It all works reasonably well, although this is one instance where some visual images of rhinos might have helped add to the atmosphere. This absence is notable since, for a long time,con-con productions featured video elements that were often gratuitous. Anyhow, we all have a pretty good idea what rhinos look like, rough and ugly, and they serve as a stark symbol of what these humans are becoming.
Although the play seems a bit under-rehearsed at times, with some softness on lines and fuzzy timing, the actors acquit themselves reasonably well. As the rumpled and ambivalent Berenger, Tom Kondilas is a shrug wrapped in a helpless sigh. Berenger is not much of a hero, which helps make the playwright's points land with even more heft. We are all Berengers, making our way through life and obsessed with the details of our existence, unable to see how we can affect major changes charging in our direction. Still, Kondilas' Berenger eventually manages to rouse himself to mount a defense of humanity.
Mike Frye makes a nice turn as Jean, morphing from pain-in-the-ass propriety to a creature motivated only by monstrous impulse. And Kayla Gray adds a piquant note of normalcy, for a while, as Daisy. Among the other performers who play incidental characters and rhinos, David L. Munnell is a standout in the dual role of Logician and Botard. Tall and lean, Munnell consistently captures the acting style that director Wilhelm is pursuing: arch and just far enough outside of reality to make Ionesco's words ring true. Also turning in solid work are Joseph Milan, Rocky Encalada and Jeanne Task, along with Kim Woodworth and Natalyn Baisden.
More than 50 years ago, Rhinoceros offered people a view of life as nonsensical and defying the presumptions of logic. Those same words are continually used these days to describe the president of the United States and his daily (hourly!) attempts to destroy democratic institutions. Meanwhile, many people in Trump's base and those in his party feel themselves growing a hardened skin, and pawing at the ground eager for physical confrontation instead of reasoned thought.
In a deft touch, Ionesco doesn't just paint the rhinos as awful. Indeed, there is beauty in their natural state which is physically dominant and without a shred of moral restriction. They devour and destroy, because that is how they were made.
This all makes Rhinoceros less an absurd comedy than a sober and all too frightening allegory. It feels good to pardon Sheriff Joe? It makes you happy to ban transgender people from the military? Join the herd, your rhino suit awaits.