Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and Edward Albee are Theatre of the Absurd playwrights. Unlike modern-movement writers like Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and William Inge, who wrote realistic plays which included solutions to problems or resolved situations, the Absurdists based their plays on Existentialism, asking, “Why do we exist?” but giving no answers. Their writings are full of questions to ponder and probe.
Absurdist plays show people and a world out of kilter. They shine the spotlight on the ridiculousness of life and situations. Their plays are often confusing, hard to understand and challenge an audience to think.
Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros,” which is now on stage at convergence continuum, is a classic play of the genre.
The story, which centers on Bérenger, tells the tale of a man who is criticized for his drinking, tardiness and laid back life style. We see him slide into paranoia and obsession as first one, then a herd of rhinoceroses, take over the town. The herd, in reality, are those people who surround Bérenger and who fall for the “myth” of the rhinoceros as they become pawns to rumors and exaggerations.
Late in his life, Ionesco, the son of an ultra-nationalist Romanian father and a Jewish Sephardic mother who converted to Calvinism to fit into French society, indicated that the script was biographical. Ionesco, who considered himself ethnically a Jew, though he didn’t practice the religion, found himself questioning how the Romanians had become so anti-Semitic, and how the Germans allowed Hitler to come to power.
The script is peppered with references that should easily stir present day viewers. There are lines like, “Journalists are all liars,” and “Racism is one of the great problems of our times” as well as allusions to disdain for intelligent people, references to what are now termed “alternate facts,” negative allusions to immigrants, attacks against humanism, and illustrating the “great lie theory,” which states that if a lie is told over and over people start to believe it is the truth.
All of the characters, except Bérenger, talk in clichés, which are short, cryptic, use over-exaggerated adjectives which often lack proof, much like today’s tweets by Donald Trump.
Ionesco looks at reasoning and absurdity by exposing the limitations of logic and what motivates and explains the forces of the universe. He uses the Rhinoceros allegory to ask, “what was the mentality that allowed a nation to succumbed to Nazism?” In modern terms, why did many people succumb to the ethnic slurs and “Make America Great Again” sloganeering of Trump?
He uses the rhinoceros as a symbol of man’s inherent savage nature, while asking how humans are so absurd that they would allow the barbarity of World War II, or, in modern terms, why more didn’t rise up more strongly as Trump does not condemn the alt-right.
Yes, “Rhinoceros” was written in 1959, but has become one of the most produced scripts today as it examines the absurdity of the US in 2017. Kudos to con-con’s artistic director Clyde Simon for putting such a relevant play on this year’s production schedule.
Staged in a black and white set and costumed in the same hue of colors, the play’s image is vivid.
Director Jonathan Wilhelm’s blocking is often creative, and the use of overlapping lines by characters on various parts of the stage adds to the absurdity. Many lines were neatly primed for laughter, including, “How can it happen in this country?” which got an extended guffaw from the audience.
The cast, Tom Kondilas, Mike Frye, Kayla Gray, Joseph Milan, Natalyn Baisden, Rocky Encalada, David L. Munnell, Jeanne Task and Kim Woodworth, are uneven in their character development, sometimes stumbling over lines and not picking up their cues quickly enough. This hopefully will right itself during the play’s run.
Capsule Judgement: The con-con production, under adept directing by Jonathan Wilhelm, is a very long sit, but can be worth the effort. Don’t go expecting a clear plot with a nicely wrapped-up solution. This is an absurd play which is intended to make you uncomfortable and forces you to be introspective and examine the world around you as you ask, “Why do we exist?”
“Rhinoceros” runs through September 16, 2017 at 8 pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at convergence-continuum’s artistic home, The Liminis, at 2438 Scranton Rd. in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood. For information and reservations call 216-687-0074 or go to http://www.convergence-continuum.org/
Next up at con-con: Israel Horowitz’s “Spared,” a one-person show performed by Robert Hawkes, from September 28 through 30, 2017. It is followed by Siegmund Fuchs’ “In The Closet” from October 13-November 4.