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Regarding Horny

Is That An Underground Theater in Your City or...Well, You Know

Melody Shickley
Owen Brightman (left) and Tim Paggi detect a pattern.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 11/19/2008

Rhinoceros

At the Copy Cat Annex Theatre Nov. 13-15

Barely 15 minutes into the third and final act of this brazenly DIY production of Eugène Ionesco's Rhinoceros, one of the cast members has shed his shirt, stepped off the stage, climbed over the first few rows of seats, handed me an ordinary beverage bottle turned into a bell-like noisemaker thanks to a net-like sleeve of metal balls, and promptly continued on his lap around this ample performance area to reappear onstage. Soon, he has distributed through the audience a makeshift marching band's array of instruments: boards outfitted with nuts and bolts to be rattled, coarse blocks to be pounded and grated together, cast-off cylinders to be struck as drums. And, as the play's director Kaitlin Murphy sat off to the side banging the living hell out of a kick drum and everybody else joined her, the room became engulfed in an angry swell of noisy oblivion, making the play feel as a mere excuse to recruit enough people to raise this ornery ruckus. Who cares if the play itself was low tech, some performances unpolished, and some line readings stumbled over? Now-classic titles from the mid-century theater of the absurd crave moments of inspired pandemonium such as this one.

The Annex Theatre has been sporadically mounting productions for a while now, such as its recent festival of plays based on Hanna-Barbera cartoons and company member Evan Moritz' The Written World, which, if the portion of it posted on his MySpace page is any indication, involves a mega-church reverend, a new bible, a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey-wearing saint, mass suicide, unprotected sex, and the boredom of existence. Obviously, Ionesco fits right into this troupe's wheelhouse.

Rhinoceros is one of those renown plays, a recognizable example of a genre that, at this point, feels to be more often read and studied than performed. It concerns a quiet town perfectly complacent with its unruffled existence, where most townsfolk appear happy to go along with the proverbial flow and be productive if docile members of society. Berenger (Tim Paggi) doesn't quite fit in. As his friend Jean (Evan Moritz) points out in the first act, his hair is unkempt, his appearance ruffled, and he should be staying away from the drink so early in the day and do something that serves him better--such as going to a museum or attending a play. How could Berenger, Jean offers, get a woman such as his looker of a coworker Daisy (Katherine Ralston) interested in him if he's in such a state?

The pair conduct this banal conversation at a café while playing chess and partaking of a few glasses of a potent potable. Nearby, the logician (Andy Abelow) tries to get an old gentleman (Jake Hostetter, gamely playing the querulous man as if Burgess Meredith forced to do Rocky XXXVII) to understand the idea of syllogism, using rhetorical examples involving cat's paws. The conversations overlap and intertwine, and it's an early instance of how Ionesco is toying with stage drama and realism, threading self-aware jokes and almost buffoonish puns into these conversations. That's one way you can tell that all is not normal in Ionesco's world. Well, that and the rhino that stampedes through the town.

Dramatized here as a man walking through the back of the audience absolutely while wailing away on a bass drum, the rhino runs over a housewife's (Sarah Matson) cat on its second pass through, inciting a circuitous argument between Jean, Berenger, and other townsfolk as to whether the rhino is question is African or Asiatic, as well as whether it is the same rhino or two different ones. Soon, language itself is the biggest obstacle standing in the way of these people being able to say anything to each other.

It's not giving anything away to reveal that Rhinoceros is about people turning into the titular beasts and Berenger's resistance to join the herd, a fact that has always been interpreted in political terms of pre-World War II Europe, but Annex Theatre's production isn't so blatantly metaphorical. For one, each set is smartly designed as a monochrome landscape--the first act efficiency-apartment white, the second cardboard brown, the third wet-sidewalk blue-gray--that suggests a world already gone to mindless conformity seed. In such places, the costumes are clashes of colors and patterns--all the men's blazers boast floral print elbow patches--that turn characters into wonderful peacock plumes, so defiantly individual as to be identical. Daisy herself runs through a virtual closet of old sitcoms, starting the play in a One Day at a Time pantsuit before moving on to a garishly florid Mrs. Roper kaftan thing and finishing up in a bright fitted dress, as if going for a Bewitched Cousin Serena saucy minx. The second act's office setting continues this daft theme, cramming its five characters into a tight space that puts the office drones themselves--Daisy, Berenger, Botard (Rick Gerriets), and Dudard (Owen Brightman)--into cubicle-like gates that make their back and forth arguments and discussions feel like a rather unhinged installment of Hollywood Squares.

This production doesn't try to turn Ionesco into a syndicated rerun, but it does exaggerate a play with an already batty sense of reality. By the third act, in which Berenger witnesses his friend Jean's transformation, Annex Theatre's Rhinoceros has itself become a cheeky commentary on the theater of the absurd's split personality: On the one hand, it's theater that playfully broke away from the seriousness of so-called professional theater of its time; on the other, it's theater that takes its formal experimentation and thematic existentialism deadly seriously. This production isn't saying those lofty ideals are all a gas, but it does remember that blatant silliness is a required element to give such philosophical considerations of humanity any sincere meaning. The approach might not work for more conventional fare such as It Can't Happen Here or The Iceman Cometh, but it succeeds on its own terms with this absurdist text. Actually, come to think of it, an artists' warehouse off Greenmount Avenue might be the perfect setting for Eugene O'Neill's epic of alcoholic desperation--as long as you could bring your own rye.

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