The Rhinoceros in the Room



Show #56: Rhino, Boxcar Theatre, May 13.

El Beh and Allison Combs in Rhino. Photo by Peter Liu

By Sam Hurwitt

There were things I was forewarned about with Boxcar Theatre’s Rhino. Chief among these was that there are no seats.  The action takes place all around the room, and the audience moves around frequently to get a good vantage point on what’s going on and to stay out of the actors’ way. The show’s less than an hour long, so the standing isn’t exactly strenuous, particularly with the periodic movement to break it up.

What I wasn’t warned about, because there was really no way of knowing, was that I might be the only one there. It was a Thursday night, and when I got there I was told that I was the only one on the will-call list.  At that point I started praying that someone else would show up, and fortunately another guy did.  Just the one, but that made all the difference.  It would have been mortifying if the actors had to perform the whole show just for me, particularly because a critic is a poor excuse for an audience member at the best of times.  I generally try to be as unobtrusive as possible with my constant note-taking, and with a show like this, there was just no way that was going to work.

Instead there were three of us, because the Boxcar company member who gave us our tickets also came in to watch the show (possibly ready to intervene if it looked like an actor-onlooker collision was imminent or someone got too close to the prop-laden columns, neither of which were problems at all.

Now, this sort of thing happens from time to time.  I can count on one hand the times I’ve been in an audience I could count on one hand for a play that was actually up and running, but it’s happened.  Once, at a small fringe theater in London almost 20 years ago, I actually was the only person in the audience. Fortunately it was a Jean-Paul Sartre play, so it only accentuated the feeling of alienation.

Rhino, of course, is all about alienation as well. Created by its cast and conceived and directed by Evren Odcikin, Rhino is inspired by Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist 1959 play Rhinoceros, an allegory for conformity in general and the rise of fascism in particular. At first the sudden appearance of a rhinoceros in town is something to gawk at, but soon it becomes clear that a few people are actually turning into rampaging pachyderms, then a lot of people, then nearly everybody, and the rhetoric of everyone else changes correspondingly from fear and suspicion of the rhinos to heralding them as the wave of the future, until finally it’s anyone who’s not a rhinoceros that’s seen as a freak.

Rhino is not an adaptation of Ionesco’s original so much as a riff on it, reshuffling some of its text and scenes but really creating a new piece out of its basic premise and themes. The characters are not exactly characters from the earlier play.  Notably the key character of Jean, the overbearing conservative friend who moves so memorably in Rhinoceros from snorting in disapproval of the rhinos to snorting as one of them, is nowhere to be found in Rhino.

The silly syllogisms of Ionesco’s logician character (“All cats die. Socrates is dead. Therefore Socrates is a cat.”) are piped into the lobby before the show in a chipper woman’s voice, along with a language-tape-style drill on rhino sounds, tips for surviving a rhino attack, and some bouncy pop instrumentals that wouldn’t be out of place in a Fellini film. (The clever sound design is by Sara Huddleston.)

The couple B and D are clearly based on Bérenger and Daisy from Rhinoceros and have some of their dialogue, but only as depicted in the last scene of Ionesco’s play. Bérenger is the main protagonist of Rhinoceros, but Rhino is unconcerned with who he or Daisy is outside of their relationship, other than their reactions to the rhinoceroses.

B and D sit together on a loveseat on a small platform that the actors occasionally push from one side of the room to another. Having played men before in several Woman’s Will shows, El Beh here plays B as a somewhat clingy husband in white shirt, suspenders and tie, with a haunted Allison Combs in a ’40s-style dress as D chastening B to be more manly and protective. (Amy Knight provided the stylish costumes.) When not indulging in stylized sweet nothings or squabbling, mostly they cower in their living room from the stampeding world outside. Bérenger and Daisy aren’t a married couple in Rhinoceros but the idealized domestic picture of them in Rhino is hard to parse as anything else.

Eugène, presumably named after Ionesco, also takes on aspects of Bérenger, particularly his sleeplessness and sense of alienation, but those may be the aspects that Bérenger borrowed from his author in the first place. In fact Eugène exists in the play as a quasi-character, caught up in his internal monologue and never really interacting with the rest of the play. The monologues draw from other Ionesco writings such as Present Past Past Present: A Personal Memoir, for passages that are obviously strongly linked thematically, such as “I have been present at mutations.” Looking dyspeptic as Eugène, Ross Pasquale tosses and turns in bed, represented by a projected square of blue light on the wall against which he stands in his pajamas with a pillow. He may be in an elevator of being given a birthday party in grotesque slo-mo, but he’s always in his own little world, and more than any other character his arc just trails off without resolution. The closest he comes to actual interaction is reading a Bérenger and Daisy scene of Rhinoceros aloud to B and D. If he’s supposed to be Ionesco somehow dreaming up the rest of it, it doesn’t come across that way.  If he’s supposed to be actually in the world of the play, he isn’t quite.

Erin Gilley is particularly amusing as BBC reporter Lucy Williams, a character original to this version, although her radio reports are adapted somewhat from various conversations in Ionesco’s play, such as about whether two charging rhino incidents were the same rhinoceros or two, and if that rhino or rhinos were one-horned or two-horned, African or Asiatic. Standing in red light under an “ON THE AIR” sign, she moralizes, philosophizes and soul-searches in the same even, plummy British tone as if she’s giving the most neutral news report, always closing with, “For the BBC, this is Lucy Williams.” Gilley also plays a distraught housewife whose cat was trampled by a rhino, a character carried over from the original, wailing melodramatically about her dead kitty and making unseemly attempts to resuscitate it.

The room’s support columns are adorned with origami-esque rhino masks that the actors wear periodically throughout the piece, illuminating them from within with small flashlights. From time to time they march around the room, led by Gilley as a German-accented rhino drill sergeant, which is the only part of the show that feels heavy-handed and a little too on the nose—er, horn.

The acting is compellingly stylized and expressionistic. Beh plays melancholy cello, and people hum “The Girl from Ipanema” or dance to upbeat chanson. They wonder aloud in golly-gee tones about passing rhinoceroses. They do a convulsive, flailing dance as the metamorphosis sets in. Odcikin’s staging does a excellent job of throwing you in the thick of it so that when there are rhinos looming and panting all around you, it’s hard not to share the characters’ anxiety.

And sure, being outnumbered by the cast of four actors partly defined the experience, but not in a bad way. If anything there was a feeling of solidarity that went along with being such a small assemblage sharing the experience.  We few, we happy few.

Rhino plays through May 29 at Boxcar Theatre, 505 Natoma St., San Francisco.

Bonus links: Some of my previous reviews and writeups featuring El Beh, Allison Combs, Ross Pasquale, Erin GilleyEvren Odcikin and Eugène Ionesco.

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