Entertainment » Theatre

Rhinoceros

by Adam Brinklow
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Jun 10, 2019
David Breithbart in ACT's "Rhinocerous"
David Breithbart in ACT's "Rhinocerous"  (Source:Kevin Bernce/ACT)

The elephant in the room has nothing on absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco's "Rhinoceros," which director Frank Galati translates into a finely tuned and titanically pleasing new production to close out ACT's San Francisco season in grandiloquent style.

Galati's "Rhinoceros" is not just an excellent play, it's also an affirmation of the utility of mammoth companies like ACT in the first place.

Pretty much any small theater troupe in the world could stage "Rhinoceros" and make it a good show. But Galati employs ACT's resources, technical prowess, and deep bench of actor collaborators in ways that make his show weighty and forceful to a degree that more humble productions would strain to match.

This 1959 tragi-farce relates a series of surreal developments in a wayside French town, where prominent citizens begin very suddenly to transform into rhinoceroses and swiftly disrupt everyday life.

Or at least, they ought to. As soon as woebegone individualist Berenger (David Breithbart) and fussy intellectual Gene (Matt Decaro) spot the first of the provincial rhinos outside of a cafe, it's clear that the general population prefers to do anything about the megafauna incursion except actually confront it.

This opening scene, played with wit, verve, and potency, sets up not only the conflict but also what a treasure Joseph Cerqua's sound design is.

The offstage carnage throughout the show — an ever-growing cacophony of growls, roars, and stampeding noises — not only sounds terrifying but also deceptively believable. Cerqua's audio is a performance unto itself, almost qualifying as the best actor in the show.

The bigger the rhinoceros problem grows, the more adamantly the town avoids dealing with it, and the rhinos soon become the dominant force in society.

Galati says in the play's marketing materials that "it isn't useful to say that this is a critique of our present situation" in the US.

And yet that's very clearly what it is, to the point that the show — in a rare misstep — even peppers some topical terms like "fake news" into the dialogue, which really is (pardon the term) too on the nose.

As an unsettling exposé of propaganda, centrist capitulation, and the madness of crowds, "Rhinoceros" seems like a curmudgeonly affair on paper. But on ACT's stage, the show sparkles with whimsy, drollery, and creative energy.

Decaro, looking like one part Marlon Brando and one part Jackie Gleeson, produces a true bravura performance as he teeters between intellectualism and increasingly violent pro-rhinoceros sympathies in the second act.

Scenes like this should be an ordeal for actors — how to even understand what's going on yourself, much less convey it to an audience with any sense of authenticity? But the results really need to be seen to be believed.

The bulk of the roles in "Rhinoceros" are small, lasting only a single scene, but the ensemble cast rarely feels wasted in the small parts. Most — particularly Jomar Tagatac as a self-satisfied nitwit who argues against the existence of rhinoceroses — make the play more than the sum of its parts just by their presence.

The scale of both the action and the audacity of the show are difficult to overstate. By the time Trish Mulholland (previously Miss Prism in "The Importance of Being Earnest" at Aurora in Berkeley) exits a scene riding on the back of an oversized rhinoceros prop and serenaded by Broadway adept Rona Figeuroa, it's clear that something special — albeit bizarre — is happening.

That scene is hard to top, but Breithbart's haunting final moments at play's end and the frightening but preposterous imagery accompanying him will linger with audiences for years after the final curtain comes down.


"Rhinoceros" runs through June 23 at the ACT, 415 Geary Street. For tickets and information visit https://www.act-sf.org.

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