Friday, September 15, 2017

Margin Notes: Rhinoceros

Eli Rosen and Luzer Twersky as Jean and Berenger.
Photo by Pedro Hernandez.

Seen on: Wednesday, 9/13/17.
My grade: B+/A-

Plot and Background
Berenger, an aloof drunkard, meets his ambitious friend Jean for drinks, but the two are soon interrupted by the shock of a rhinoceros running down the street. The number of rhinceroses in the village grows, and Berenger witnesses his colleagues and friends capitulating one by one to become rhinoceroses themselves. Eugene Ionesco, considered one of the fathers of Theater of the Absurd, lived through the Nazi occupation of France, and wrote Rhinoceros in 1959 as a response to the rise of fascism he observed. New Yiddish Rep, whose mission is to perform "modern treatments of Yiddish classics and Yiddish interpretations of modern masterpieces," presents a new Yiddish translation of Ionesco's play by Eli Rosen (with English supertitles).

What I Knew Beforehand
I studied Ionesco's oeuvre in a Theater of the Absurd course in college. I'd also seen an incredibly powerful production of Rhinoceros at Virginia Tech when I was a teenager that still stays with me.


Play: It feels not only appropriate but inevitable to see a revival of this play done by a Jewish troupe - the ethnic group most specifically targeted and slaughtered by the Nazi regime. They've been here before, and they know the landscape. Despite, or perhaps because of, its absurd premise - that people are turning into rhinoceroses and stampeding about the town - Ionesco's play is able to make its point so clearly. We know we wouldn't want to turn into rhinoceroses, we know what destruction they're callously wreaking in this village; it's so clear, and yet the villagers refuse to see it. This is the parallel drawn to the rise of fascism - an inevitable destruction so plainly obvious to some it seems foolish to have to point it out, and yet people find excuses to allow, to permit, to try to meet them on their monstrous level. The new translation, both its Yiddish and English versions, is acutely aware of the frightening parallels to be drawn to the political climate today - so Botard, intent on denying the very existence of rhinoceroses, cries "Fake news!" while Jean and the Gentleman deliberate on whether the rhinoceroses had one or two horns - a distinction that not only doesn't matter, but puts further emphasis on wanting to classify between "acceptable" rhinoceroses and ones to be shunned, indicating a racist bias even before conversion to rhinoceroses. Director Moshe Yassur and translator Eli Rosen are aware of the obvious parallels, and so treat them with a light but conscious hand, so that the play feels neither didactic nor trivial. This has happened before, and we should all know the landscape.

Cast: The ensemble works well together, embracing the heightened style with panache, particularly in the opening crowd scene as the first (and then the second) rhinoceros appears. Of particular note are Alec Leyzer Burko, as the preposterous Logician and the pseudo-intellectual Botard, both sure of their ideas even when confronted with a reality which denies every assertion; and Gera Sandler as the simpering Gentleman and the supercilious Papillon, waiting to see which way the wind blows. Malky Goldman brings an endearing earnestness to Daisy, one which turns frighteningly to a passionate admiration for the rhinoceros hoard she had previously decried. Luzer Twersky's Berenger is appropriately bewildered and ineffectual, though he never quite comes into his own as one wishes. Eli Rosen, doing double duty as the translator and as Jean, has a wonderful onstage transformation from the assured and somewhat schoolmastery friend of the first scene, to the pacing, feral, growling rhinoceros we see him become.

Design: Susannah Norris-Lindsay's costume design is vibrantly colorful, with a keen eye for detail, as well as leaning into the aesthetic of archetypes and tropes, encouraged by the style of the play: Daisy in a dress with a literal daisy pattern, Berenger with his rumpled blue suits, Jean's immaculate suit changed for a drab green blanket over grey pajamas, The Cafe Proprietor with her curls piled high on her head. The lighting design of Evan Kerr and the sound design of Jesse Freedman marry well, slipping easily from the calm normalcy to the rumbling, flickering panic that comes with the approach of each rhinoceros (Freedman's sound design becomes particularly pointed, as the sound the rhinoceroses shifts from the grunting and stamping of animals to the frenzied shouts of a rally).


Running: Now playing at Castillo Theatre (New Yiddish Rep) - Opening: September 14, 2017. Closing: October 8, 2017.
Category: straight play
Length: 2 hours, including intermission.

Creative Team

Playwright: Eugene Ionesco
Yiddish Translation: Eli Rosen
Director: Moshe Yassur
Designers: Moshe Yassur (Set), Susannah Norris-Lindsay (Costume), Evan Kerr (Lighting), Jesse Freedman (Sound), Beate Hein Bennett (Dramaturg/Program Editor).
Cast: Eli Rosen, Luzer Twersky, Malky Goldman, Mira Kessler, Sean Griffin, Caraid O'Brian, Gera Sandler, Alec Leyzer Burko, Macha Fogel, Amy Coleman.

Luzer Twersky, Caraid O'Brian, Malky Goldman, and Sean Griffin (background)
as Berenger, Mrs. Ox, Daisy, and Dudard. Photo by Pedro Hernandez.

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