As the scrim moves up to the rafters, lights bathe the background cast of Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros in an eerie, underwater blue. It’s a determined, slow reveal that transitions from one scene to the next. The three-paneled scrim depicted a cheerful French village where Berenger (David Breitbarth) and Gene (Matt DeCaro) meet at a cafe in the town square. Gene is fastidious in his dress and his deportment. He’s as fussy as Berenger is affable — and disheveled from his hangover. Gene scolds him about his drinking and his unkempt appearance. It sounds like an ordinary conversation between old friends who bicker and pick at each other. Until the sound of rumbling starts up and a rhinoceros crashes into a nearby building.
Scenery designer Robert Perdziola has made an inspired choice not to build a realistic set, and the scrim emphasizes Ionesco’s reality instead. It’s a façade, like Berenger and Gene’s exchange, that can’t cover up the deeper rumblings of a polite society. People’s identities, along with the buildings they inhabit, aren’t solid enough to withstand the intrusion of life’s messiness, to chaos in its raw form. The play moves on from the cafe to the office where Berenger works. His co-workers are comparing notes about the rhinoceros sighting. Daisy (Rona Figueroa) confirms that she saw the animal. But Mr. Botard (Jomar Tagatac) questions her statement of fact. He plants doubt, not in her mind, but in the room itself. He’s bending her version of the truth to assert his own views on the matter.
That changes when Mrs. Boeuf (Trish Mulholland) comes running up the stairs at top speed. Out of sorts, she tells the staff that her husband is ill and won’t be in to work that day. And, as she tries to catch her breath, Mrs. Boeuf explains that a rhinoceros chased her down the street. Botard remains incredulous until he and everyone else hears that same, ominous rumbling sound approach the front door. The rhinoceros destroys the staircase and starts circling the floor below. Then it farts and defecates. In that intimate moment, Mrs. Boeuf suddenly recognizes her husband, despite the change in his outward appearance. Her fear is replaced by tenderness. She leaps down upon the animal’s back and rides him. The audience gets its first glimpse of a rhinoceros’ backside in yet another clever reveal by Perdziola. Its animated rear end and tail wag as the Boeufs disappear into the sunset.
Mulholland, and the entire cast, convey the bleakly comic tone without turning into clowns. Rhinoceros is funny but it’s not a comedy as such. Ionesco’s work is categorized as absurdist but this production flirts, assertively, with black comedy. There are also cuts in the script that pare down some of the play’s philosophical detours (you won’t miss them). They’re supplemented with Edith Piaf songs. As Daisy, Figueroa plays Berenger’s love interest but she also breaks out of character and into “Non, je ne regrette rien” to punctuate a scene. Piaf is the perfect symbol of wilted romanticism.
At the start of the play, Berenger expresses his longing for Daisy to Gene. In the closing scene, Berenger and Daisy have accelerated through years of a marriage in a matter of minutes. Other playwrights must envy the economy of Ionesco’s writing. He tosses out easy psychology for the arcane. Nothing’s tied up neatly. You’re left with more questions than answers. Why are people turning into rhinoceroses? Is this an exploration of the herd mentality? Are the rhinoceroses conforming or just unable to contain their primal urges? Asking the questions matters more than finding specific answers. When we watch Gene into one, DeCaro demonstrates the character’s long withheld sense of outrage. Gene’s tried to keep his life and his psyche in order but he can no longer contain himself. As bumps start to form on his forehead, as his skin turns into a toughened hide, he says that he’s burning up on the inside.
In the final scene, the sculpture of an enormous rhinoceros waits patiently at the back of the stage. Berenger witnesses his friend’s transformation and is terrified by what he sees. We’re in his bedroom, or the chaotic remains of it. He can’t get out of bed. When another co-worker visits him, he asks his colleague if there are horns growing on his skin. Dudard (Teddy Spencer) says no, but he’s not a reassuring figure. There’s a mirror on Berenger’s desk but the frame is empty. There’s no reflecting glass. He lives in a society that’s unable to see itself. Berenger tells himself that he won’t capitulate, that he won’t become a rhinoceros. Daisy, however, hears them singing together outside but the curtain closes before we find out if he has enough willpower to resist their sirens’ call.
Rhinoceros, through June 23, at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St. $15-$110; 415-749-2228 or act-sf.org