Convergence-continuum’s ‘Rhinoceros’ as ungainly as its title characters
By Bob Abelman
“Dying is easy,” said famed 1940s performer Edmund Gwenn on his deathbed. “Comedy is hard.”
Tragifarcical absurdism may be even harder judging from convergence-continuum’s well-intended but ultimately ungainly production of Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros.”
Inspired by the playwright’s experiences with fascism in Paris during World War II, “Rhinoceros” depicts the struggle of an everyman named Bérenger (Tom Kondilas) to maintain his identity and morality while those around him succumb to the allure of conformity and brutality.
The action takes place in a provincial French town suddenly overrun with a mysterious plague that is causing ordinary citizens to turn into rampaging and destructive pachyderms.
Written in 1959, the three-act play tests one’s pain and pleasure threshold for the playwright’s exaggeration of the ordinary and having his characters speak in non-sequiturs to reveal the strangeness of what’s commonplace.
“Rhinoceros” is more laborious than Ionesco’s earlier, short-form plays like “The Bald Soprano” and lacks the fluidity he would eventually find in later works like “Exit the King,” but it is still an intriguing piece of theater.
Director Jonathan Wilhelm keeps this play moving at lightning speed, which thankfully keeps the production at well under its usual three-hour run-time but manages to miss some of the play’s more poignant beats.
He also foregoes the dark and stark realism embraced by most productions of this play and adds a touch of surrealism to emphasize and expand the moments of comedy. He places his characters in a bright and completely white-washed environment, adorns them in white and black costuming and makeshift headgear when they transform into rhinos, and gives the actors who play the characters that surround Bérenger the license to clown.
They (Kayla Gray, Joseph Milan, Natalyn Baisden, Rocky Encalada, David L. Munnell, Jeanne Task and Kim Woodworth) do so with incompatible degrees of exaggeration, with Milan, Woodworth and Munnell being the most effective.
While this waters down some of the metaphorical potency and political relevance of the play (though some lines of dialogue resonate without any need of assistance), it nicely emphasizes Ionesco’s commentary on the state of humanity as embodied in his central characters Bérenger and Jean (Mike Frye), the first of Bérenger’s colleagues to turn
The mop-headed Kondilas does a wonderful job of capturing Bérenger’s hungover, unheroic ordinariness. His efforts to both avoid and address the madness around him is a pleasure to watch, as is his ability to engage his fellow players and the audience throughout the production
His moral and physical counterpoint is the prim and self-absorbed Jean, a role that Frye seems to relish, particularly during his snorting moments of transformation. Although much of Jean’s shapeshifting takes place behind a curtain – resulting in disappointingly few prosthetics and only a few smears of green paint when he returns – Frye’s fine acting does the heavy lifting before Jean joins the growing herd we hear stampeding (aided by Beau Reinker’s sound design) behind the theater’s stadium seating.
Because of the play’s timely political commentary, this is the first con-con production since its first season 16 years ago to breach its mission statement by featuring a nonliving playwright. Short of adorning the rhinos in red baseball caps that read “Make France Great Again,” one would think that more creative risk-taking would take place to better underscore Ionesco’s bullet points.
In short, this production is more amusing than it is provocative, which is not necessarily what Ionesco was going for. CV
WHERE: Liminis Theatre, 2438 Scranton Rd., Tremont
WHEN: Through Sept. 16
TICKETS & INFO: $10 – $20. Call 216-687-0074 or visit convergence-continuum.org
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on August 26, 2017.
Lead image: The cast of “Rhinoceros.” Photo / Evan Kondilas