This student-directed play had a deep message.
by Declan Murphy
This April, Fordham Experimental Theatre (FET) presented its production of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros.
Rhinoceros tells the story of a small town disrupted by the appearance of a rampaging rhinoceros. As the townspeople debate its appearance, or even whether or not it existed at all, it gradually becomes apparent that people are becoming rhinoceroses. This slow process continues until nearly all the townspeople have ‘turned’, leaving only the central couple alone to face the rhinoceroses. But how long can the two of them really last as the only humans left?
Rhinoceros is steeped in allegory. The slow transformation of the town into rhinos serves as a versatile metaphor for differing varieties of groupthink. It can be interpreted as nationalism, fascism, or Nazism. In that sense, Rhinoceros is an impressively relevant text, paralleling the developments of the alt-right in American politics.
Anchoring all this grandiose political messaging is the stellar cast, who make the often deeply philosophical play feel human and relatable. The most impressive performance, though, comes from Colleen Granberg. As a rigid, uptight, rules-y friend of the protagonist, Granberg’s slow descent into the madness of the rhino is compelling and horrific. One feels the almost seductive lure of the ‘transformation’: a life of simplicity, of the “law of the jungle”, overwhelms and draws in Granberg’s character. Coming midway through the second act, this transformation is arguably the centerpiece of the play, as it is through the dialectical conversation between the protagonist and Granberg that the audience understands why people would want to become rhinos – and, equally as important, why they shouldn’t.
The show maintains a delicate balance of comedy and drama, indicative of its absurdist style. The first act unfolds in a series of vignettes, which establish a colorful cast of townspeople: the overeager storekeepers; the precocious logician and her cheerful sidekick; and, in one of the most comic pieces of the play, a woman in full mourning over the passing of her beloved cat. These moments of comedy do not conflict with the drama. Rather, they give us a sense of a fully realized, human world, the loss of which is all the more tragic.
The symbolism of the rhinos is enhanced, as well, by the technical presentation. The ‘rhinos’ all wear headlamps and grey face paint as they sulk about the stage (and through the audience). This alienation can make the audience, quite deliberately, uncomfortable. We as viewers are forced to confront the “other” face-to-face, wordlessly and with great fear.
Much credit for this production is due to its stellar directing team of Rita Padden and Hillary Bosch. Padden has orchestrated a play that keeps the audience invested for the entirely of its 2+ hour runtime – by no means an easy feat. The play never loses its sense of absurdity, but this does not create the aimlessness or disappointment that might have resulted from less focused direction. Instead, Padden has assembled a talented group of actors who vividly realize the comedy, tragedy, and horror in equal parts.
Rhinoceros is by no means an easy play to read or watch. The dialogue is rapid-fire, the subtext looms heavily, and the plot structure is unconventional. But the world of FET’s Rhinoceros so lively from its very inception that one can palpably feel the town’s atmosphere change.
Rhinoceros is a fine addition to a great season for FET, and a powerful statement by Padden. It is evocative of the very kind of art that FET does best: engaging, thoughtful, entertaining works of theatre with a deeply human spirit.