By Ed Rampell
Tackling Totalitarianism with Absurdity
Eugène Ionesco’s 1959 parable about pachyderms belongs to the Theatre of the Absurd. Yet, the production of Rhinoceros, now at Pacific Resident Theatre through September 10th, is an example of a work that speaks to today’s zeitgeist. The Theatre of the Absurd isn’t just a genre. We wake up to it every morning.
The plot seems similar to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Don Siegel’s 1956 sci-fi classic made during the height of Cold War hysteria, wherein spores invading from outer space replace humans by spawning duplicate creatures in a California town. In Ionesco’s three act play, residents of a provincial town outside of Paris turn into rhinoceroses. But instead of emotionless “pod people,” as in Snatchers, Ionesco’s rhinos are uncivilized, aggressive, animalistic beings – Nazis, in a manner of speaking. The play questions the ability of the provincial townsfolk to resist them, and the outcome isn’t encouraging.
The Play’s Not-So-Archetypal Anti-Fascist
Ironically, Rhinoceros’ unlikely resistance leader is Berenger (Keith Stevenson). Instead of being a brawny proletarian, swashbuckling hero, or an Antifa tossing Molotov cocktails at Berkeley police, the bullied Berenger is unshaven, imbibes too much, is late for work, and has no success with women. Yet it is precisely these “I’m-only-human” character traits that enable Berenger to maintain his individuality, sense of humanity, and refusal to capitulate to the rising hordes of horned rhinos. (Berenger recurs in other Ionesco plays – some critics think the flawed character is the playwright’s alter ego.)
The Play’s Prototypical Proto-Fascist
In Rhinoceros’ first act, Berenger’s fastidious friend Jean (played by actor/director Guillermo Cienfuegos) joins Berenger at an outdoor café. Contrasted against sloppy, slobby Berenger, Jean is dapper and berates his companion for his unkempt appearance, among other things.
“Jean is motivated by vanity, status, and his appearance,” noted Cienfuegos. “And then you see the president of the United States, who appears to be motivated by the exact same thing. I worried if Jean was going to seem too ridiculous, then you see this real guy, who is really pushing people out of the way at summits with world leaders and saying you have to make the wall [between Mexico and the USA] transparent so people don’t get hit by 60-pound bags of drugs.”
The actor/director didn’t want the play to be too on the nose (or horn?), “updated with Jean wearing a big overlong red tie. I wanted to trust the audience to see the parallels.” However, in what some may consider to be a reference to Trump’s outlandish hair-do, Jean wears a wig, which is not in Ionesco’s script.
Still Relevant After All These Years
In keeping with his anti-authoritarian theme, Ionesco’s dialogue is so strikingly of the moment and pertinent that some lines sound as if they were ripped from today’s headlines. At an office in Act Two, office exec Botard (Peter Elbling) disputes reports of rhino sightings, proclaiming: “I never believe journalists. They’re all liars… It’s obvious they were just making it up. You put too much trust in these journalists; they don’t care what they invent to sell their wretched newspapers…”
Botard is even in denial about first person accounts provided by co-workers, declaring, “Your rhinoceros is a myth… Like flying saucers… An example of collective psychosis.” The Doubting Thomas goes on to assert, “You’ve been making all this propaganda to get these rumors started.” Even as the office comes under attack by a horned pachyderm, Botard continues to insist it’s an illusion.
Botard’s denunciation of the press is astoundingly similar to Trump and his regime denouncing journalists and their reportage as “fake news,” “the enemy of the people”, and “the opposition party.” Ionesco’s character uses the same exact word to describe rhinoceros sightings as Trump does for allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential race and collusion with his campaign to win: “hoax.” Cienfuegos called these similarities “amazing – Ionesco knew exactly what he was talking about.”
Furthermore, Botard is proven to be factually inaccurate – just as countless Trump conspiracy theories and other “alternative facts” have been debunked (including: Barack Obama’s Kenyan birth; the Central Park Five’s guilt; thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered the 9/11 Twin Tower attack; Ted Cruz’s father had ties to Lee Harvey Oswald; 2016’s millions of illegal voters; etc.).
Cienfuegos insightfully went on to compare Rhinoceros’ pompous professional logician (a mustachioed Sarah Brooke in a gender bending role) – who fatuously pronounces nonsensical “illogical syllogisms” as if they are revealed truth – to cable news pundits. These are those self-appointed, self-anointed experts “who know so little about so much, explaining the world to us and getting it so wrong,” as Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman quipped. Or, as George Orwell put it, TV’s talking heads whose glib job is jabbering in defense of the indefensible.
Since the November 2016 presidential election, Cienfuegos said he’s “been concerned and anxious about the direction of our country. I wanted to say something about that and felt like I was waking up every day and turning on the news and just seeing one absolute absurdity after another. So it occurred to me that the best way I could be part of the voice of resisting this direction our government is going was the Theatre of the Absurd. So I thought of Rhinoceros. I was just blown away by how timely it is. Even more so than I’d thought,” mused the director, who added that during rehearsals, watching Trump administration machinations unfold on TV news “made it seem like our play is becoming less and less absurd every day. The things that happen in our play aren’t as insanely absurd as things really happening.”
Cienfuegos continued, explaining, “Ionesco was talking about fascism in the Europe of the 1940s – of the rise of the Iron Guard in Romania. He’s really saying this is how it happens, how a totalitarian and authoritarian mindset takes place… When this herd mentality takes hold, people give up their own individuality, their own humanity, because they think they have to believe in a certain ideology.”
According to Cienfuegos, Ionesco – who lived in Romania and France during the Nazi period – noticed that “his group of friends would argue about issues of the day. But little by little, they’d buy into the fascist argument… They became so married to the ideology that when he was talking to them they were lowering their heads, like they were going to charge him, like rhinoceroses – which is where he came up with the idea of the play.”
In his landmark 1962 book The Theatre of Revolt Robert Brustein wrote, “existential revolt is the dominating impulse behind the plays of… Ionesco, and the entire ‘theatre of the absurd.’” For Cienfuegos, this genre’s “main tool is ridicule. It’s not that he doesn’t land a very potent message – Ionesco skewers everyone… When you have an urgent message like Rhinoceros has, it’s always best to do it in a shroud of comedy.” Indeed, Melissa McCarthy’s merciless lampooning of White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live appears to have played a major role in sidelining him and then knocking him off his perch as Trump’s mouthpiece.
On a serious note Cienfuegos warns, “This whole idea that because we’ve been a democracy for 240 years that we’ll always be one is uncertain. You’ve got to be vigilant against letting your humanity slip away to be on the winning side… Small intimate theatres like ours, we have a responsibility to not be silent like Berenger was [at first]. We have to take the tool the Greeks invented to alert people. What we need is engagement. Hamilton’s cast spoke to [Vice Pres. Mike] Pence – I don’t think theatre should be a safe space. It should be fun, but also challenging. Theatre is uniquely capable of doing more than any other medium.”
Rhinoceros runs at least through September 10 at Pacific Resident Theatre. For more info: https://pacificresidenttheatre.com/rhinoceros/.
You can read Stage Raw’s review of the show here.