"Fake news!" shouts one of the news reporter characters in ACT's production of Eugene Ionesco's stable of absurdist playwriting, Rhinoceros. That may not be how it was phrased in the original translation, circa 1959, but it perfectly encapsulates the moment, early in Act One, in which a small French town is beset by stampeding rhinoceroses, or possibly just one, and no one can quite accept or agree on what they saw or didn't see. And it draws the clearest thread between then and now, between the post-war era of Joseph McCarthy and Europe's long hangover from fascism, and our current, infuriating epoch.
Ionesco was battling slightly different, though essentially the same societal demons when he wrote Rhinoceros, perhaps one of the purest distillations of both the absurdist enterprise, and the political era out of which it was born. In France, where he was an immigrant originally from Romania, Ionesco weathered World War II in the coastal town of Marseilles. Nearly two decades later wrote this play about a mysterious illness that slowly afflicts everyone in a town, save one lone hero — and it's an affliction that people seem to assume for themselves out of an uncontrollable urge to join the herd, or a fear of being left behind.
The most obvious parallel is to the complacent and Nazi-sympathizing French public during the war and German occupation, who outnumbered the resistance, despite the strain of independence and intellectualism that otherwise courses through modern French identity. But Rhinoceros feels as fresh today in director Frank Galati's new production — which originated at Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida — as it must have to its first audiences in the U.S. and abroad. Because the themes, and the political traumas they arose from, are all too familiar still.
The play centers on Berenger (David Breitbarth), a character Ionesco would use as his everyman in several different plays, cast here as a hedonistic slouch whose best friend goads him about his drinking and tells him to pull himself together. Matt DeCaro, as Berenger's friend Gene, does excellent work both as Berenger's corrective voice and as a quickly metamorphosing beast, and he serves as the foil in the philosophical conversations Ionesco weaves through the play. What constitutes a good and useful life? Are we just animals with basic desires? Is there any reward for an iconoclast who refuses to follow the lead of others? These are all questions inherent in the characters' often comical, poetic conversations.
The comedy of Rhinoceros succeeds on every level thanks to the work of supporting players like Danny Scheie as Mr. Papillon, Teddy Spencer as Mr. Dudard, and Trish Mulholland as Mrs. Boeuf. And Rona Figueroa does delightfully flippant work as Daisy.
But Galati's vision for this production, which includes some comically enormous rhinoceros visuals, Edith Piaf, and a near constant rumbling in the distance, is partly what makes it feel so relevant. It's a play that deals with propaganda and misinformation from an era when our current endless news cycle couldn't have been imagined — but the human will to deny, deflect, and avoid inconvenient truths has not changed in six decades. But Ionesco didn't necessarily choose a side. He saw how smart people could be drawn in by dangerous, immoral things, and he tried to see the human nature in that. "People are changing into rhinoceroses," says Daisy. "My cousin is a rhinoceros. Even celebrities, like Brigitte Bardot." Swap in anything from Trumpism to anti-vaxxers to Bernie bros, and the resonances are many. It's as if the play were waiting, infrequently produced and in the backs of the minds of English majors and theater nerds, to be rediscovered and reapplied to our times.
"The play is a canary in a mineshaft," Galati said in an interview. "It's an alarm call."
And as alarms go, Rhinoceros is neither a loud nor an obnoxious one. But it does demand your attention, and might just reawaken a sense of history's absurd circularity, and our absurd ways of remembering and forgetting it.
'Rhinoceros' plays at the Geary Theater through June 23. Find tickets here.