AISLE SAY Seattle
By Eugene Ionesco
Directed by John Farrage
Capitol Hill Arts Center
1621 12th Ave. Seattle, WA / 206-388-0500
How can a man single-handedly resist the most powerful of social imperatives, the impulse to conform? Is such resistence even possible or at best desireable? These are the central questions that form the core thesis of Eugene Ionesco's 1959 Absurdist masterpiece "Rhinoceros", receiving an exmplary production at Capitol Hill Arts Center. Directed by veteran Seattle fringe actor John Farrage, this story of one man's attempt to resist change against the inevitable odds sparkles with delicious comic performances, and a clever technical production that fully utilizes the small CHAC performance space.
Farrage, who admits to a long-time love affair with the play, shows a surprising facility with the dense text (using an English translation by the late French actor/writer Derek Prouse), and works his cast into a veritable existential frenzy, getting uniformly strong performances out of even the smallest roles. CHAC Artistic Director/CEO Matthew Kwatinetz handles the scenic design duties for this production, and has come up with a unique (albeit labor-intensive) solution for the play's four scene/four location structure that actually reinforces Ionesco's thematic pursuits in an unusually kinectic fashion.
Ionesco, like many of his counterparts in the Absurdist movement can get rather pedantic, at times taxing the attention span of the audience, but Farrage keeps up an almost breakneck pacing that belies the play's somewhat static nature. Except for the inciting action -- for some inexplicable reason, the citizens of a small French town are transforming into rhinoceri -- nothing much really happens in "Rhinoceros", and most of the play is spent in a series of deep philosophical arguments, or conversely, banal personal discussions that often simultaneously overlap and play around each other like frisky kittens.
Berenger (Wayne Rawley) is a low-level functionary with a decidedly lackadaisical attitude toward his job, and life in general. His best friend, Jean (James Cowan) is almost completely his opposite: where Berenger is slovenly, Jean is industrious; one is dishhevelled, the other sartorially precise. As the two sit at an outdoor cafe discussing ways to improve Berenger's attitude, their dialogue cleverly and counterpuntally overlapps with a pair of logicians at the next table (Basil Harris and Tim Barr). But, in the midst of their tet-a-tet, something extraordinary happens. A full-grown rhinoceros stampedes down the narrow street, stomping a cat (real or imaginary we're never sure) to death in the process. The next day at his office, Berenger and his colleagues discuss the incident, while one (Rebecca Goldberg), dismisses the reports -- including Berenger's eye-witness account -- as fantasy or mass hallucination until the arrival of their co-worker's wife, Ms. Boeuf (Karen Gruber). She's in a state of panic: her husband has just turned into a rhinoceros before her very eyes, and conveniently followed her to the office for all to see. Clearly, something is seriously amiss in this quiet little village, and Ionesco uses the patently absurd device to launch off on a rollercoaster ride of comic and philosophical twists and turns in his satirical examination of social interaction and the instinctual need to subsume ones will to that of a larger group dynamic.
Rawley's performance succinctly encapsulates the confused, desperate, and stubborn nature of Berenger, giving him a somewhat blustery nobility, made all the more poignant by his willful insitence on maintaining the status-quo against all odds. Teamed with the dapper, fastidious Cowan, the two make a delightfully comic "Alphonse and Gaston" pairing, and Cowan excells himself in their later scene with his physical transformation from human to pacyderm. Aimee Bruneau also gives a nice reading as Berenger's paramour, a woman of simple views who eventually succombs to "rhinoceritis" via her own brand of circular logic. The supporting cast is uniformly up to the level of the principals, particularly Barr who doubles as Berenger's boss, Harris, as the supercillious logician, and Goldberg as the skeptical Ms. Botard.
"Rhinocerous" is not an easy task for either actors or audience: Ionesco's Absurdist style is technically demanding, and his philosophical musings can weary the ear of an American audience. But, for those willing to pay close attention (a little extra padding on your seats will be a big help in this regard), there are plenty of rewards to be found in this funny, thoughtful production.
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