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Rhinoceros/Eastern Standard

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RHINOCEROS

Next Theatre Company

Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros is a simple little tale, charming for its goofiness and admirable for its insight into human shortcomings. Ionesco revels in the absurdities of 20th-century French culture, with its penchant for intellectualism and its love affair with reason. While the number of rhinos in a provincial French town is reaching crisis proportions, Ionesco's characters get embroiled in petty philosophical debates, each refusing to be swayed by anyone else's opinion for fear of losing their distinctiveness as free thinkers. They display a remarkable conformity, however, in their quest for intellectual individuality and independence. Yet by the end, all but one of the characters have dropped this pursuit and--because of their fear of being alone--have been transformed into rhinoceroses.

Rhinoceros premiered in Germany in 1959 and subsequently enjoyed tremendously successful runs in Paris, London, and New York. It has often been interpreted as an allegory about the spread of Nazism through Europe. But in his staging of this highly stylized play, Next Theatre Company director (and translator) Dexter Bullard strives to play up the universality of Ionesco's vision. A program note by dramaturge Davin Auble puts the play in the context of American society today: "Since Ionesco's first diagnosis of the disease, how many outbreaks of rhinoceritis have erupted under our very noses?"

That's a good question, but it doesn't get at the heart of this play. The rhinoceritis Ionesco presents is a French strain of the disease, with symptoms very different from the American strain. Striving to make this play universal, Bullard has overlooked its Frenchness, which is the wellspring of Ionesco's sly humor. Rhinoceros is full of debates that begin with a simple statement like "For a man to turn into a rhinoceros is abnormal beyond question" and quickly degenerate into such responses as "In Galileo's case it was the opposite: theoretical and scientific thought proving itself superior to mass opinion and dogmatism."

Ionesco lampoons the superficial side of French discourse, which meanders off into meaninglessness despite its clean "but of course I am right" tone. His humor requires a precise and exaggerated style based on the French society it mocks. Bullard (who has proven himself one of Chicago's finest directors) achieves some of this exaggeration through slick lighting effects by Robert G. Smith, slide projections by Stephan Mazurek, and a fantastic soundscape by David Zerlin. But for the most part his cast overlook their characters' Frenchness and so miss the germ of the play. Their characters are superficial but in a painfully American way.

Most of the cast, whether through technical inability or a misreading of the script, give shallow portrayals that ultimately undermine the humor (and thus the point) of Rhinoceros. As the protagonist Berenger--who by the end of the play is the only person who refuses to become a rhinoceros--Jeff Atkins comes off as true to himself, but his performance has a slight musical-comedy tone that's out of place. Circus Szalewski gives a commendable performance as the nonsense-spouting logician, as does Will Casey as Jean, especially during his transformation into a rhinoceros. But even the best performances here are missing the satirical edge that makes Ionesco's work effective.

EASTERN STANDARD

Virgo Productions
at the Theatre Building

Three months ago, when I reviewed the Fade to Black staging of Eastern Standard at Cafe Voltaire, I called the play a "rich and complicated" love story. I now find that declaration suspect. After seeing Virgo Productions' stiff, rather academic staging under the direction of William Brown, I want to call it little more than a feel-good play for people from Manhattan's Upper East Side.

Playwright Richard Greenberg is asking for trouble: he tackles such issues as AIDS, homelessness, and class relations while at the same time telling a charming Neil Simon-style love story. Stephen and Phoebe, two New York yuppies, meet in a restaurant and fall in love. An aspiring actress befriends a homeless woman. Phoebe's homosexual brother meets the love of his life but has just discovered he's HIV-positive.

The love stories are what make this play work. Brown takes a very careful approach in this production, with accurate sets (by Ellen Schaeffer) and costumes and a technically solid cast who look their parts. Most of the ensemble members are strong actors individually, but they don't seem to like or trust one another. When it was time to get angry they made a fine show of emotion, but when it came to exhibiting a little love and tenderness their actions rang hollow. Good love stories require passion, and passion is what is missing from this production.

On second viewing it seems that Greenberg hasn't written a great love story. He's written an adequate one. Add an adequate cast, shake it up, and the results come out as just that-- adequate but not very inspiring.

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