We are all familiar with the modern zombie-apocalypse narrative. An unlucky soul is bitten. This person then transforms into a flesh-hungry monster intent on finding others to infect or consume.
It is never this person’s fault. The zombifying disease corrupts with no regard for age, race, or moral rectitude. If society is taken over by the fiends, bad luck is the only force that can be rightly blamed.
But what if the victims have a choice? In Eugene Ionesco’s play, Rhinoceros, a plague called “rhinoceritis” brings about the transformations of humans into rhinoceroses, but only when they to succumb to a desire to join the herd. They may be motivated by the desire for freedom, power, change, or inclusion. Eventually, the small town is overrun by the beasts.
The apocalyptic storyline is less thrilling than it is tragic and anxiety-provoking. This weekend’s production of Rhinoceros, directed by Alcindor Leadon ‘17 and produced by Kit Lea Cheang ‘19 and Declan Kunkel ‘19, uses a minimalist set and an array of wonderfully disturbing sound effects to underscore the tension so critical to the play’s message.
The protagonist, Berenger (Stephen Williams-Ortega ‘20), is a hapless drunk whom we first meet as he is berated in a cafe by a friend, Jean (Noah Stetson ‘18), for his alcoholism and lack of organization. Berenger and Jean first spy a rhinoceros as they bicker in the cafe. This first rhinoceros sighting is soon followed by another, and then another, until the creatures wreak havoc on the town.
Williams-Ortega effectively portrays the awkward, apathetic salary-man who is ultimately the last man alive. His shifting role from that of passive observer to frantic dissenter is captivating in its obvious futility. Though Berenger insists he is right to want to remain human, he is systematically deserted by those he respects and holds dear, most significantly Stetson, his lover Daisy (Leslie Schneider ‘20), and a local Logician (Sabrina Clevenger ‘18). Daisy, apparently the romantic interest of every man who lays eyes on her, is written by Ionesco as a passive and easily corruptible character. Schneider embodies her role as an object of desire with energy and is convincing in her impersonation of the woman as “other” so common to mid-1900s theater.
The Logician’s main preoccupation is attempting to frame a rational argument for whether a particular rhinoceros is of the Asiatic or African breed, though ironically she serves only to complicate the issue further. Clevenger delivers excellently the combination of wit and seriousness necessary to highlight the ridiculous shortcomings of purely rational thought.
The set’s backdrop is a deteriorating wall with wire bones exposed, its sorry state a nod to moral degradation that that is a key theme in the narrative. Whites, blacks and greys dominate the color spectrum of both costumes and props and add to the senses of isolation and despair that build as the story reaches its climax.
Ionesco’s play is a well-known example of the “theater of the absurd,” a French dramatic movement first popularized during the 1940s and 50s. The play emphasizes the purposelessness and absurdity of the human existence. Another theme is also the critique of the rise of fascism in pre-World War II Europe.
It would, however, be foolish to ignore the play’s relevance to our own time. The sudden and dramatic rise of the rhinoceros herd mirrors the tide of the unstoppable social movement; Berenger’s ultimate struggle to resist joining the herd is easy to relate to for anyone who has faced down the pressures of majority opinion. Characters rationalize their decisions to succumb to rhinoceritis by citing dissatisfaction with the current states of affairs and rejecting the assumption that a concrete moral good exists.
When Berenger watches in horror as his dear friend (Jean/Stetson) transforms from man to rhinoceros. the dialogue evokes memories of Trump’s political waffling and affinity for conspiracy theories.
“Doctors invent illnesses that don’t exist,” Jean declares when told to call a doctor about his condition.
Criticized for legitimate physical and behavioral issues, Jean responds with undue hostility, spitting petty insults at his once-friend. Sadly, this behavior feels all too familiar given our constant exposure to coverage of the president elect’s regular Twitter tirades.
Stetson conveys Jean’s metamorphosing character such that we feel discomfort watching him lash out and writhe as he nears his transformation. For example, when his character begins to grow horns and develop a hoarse voice like that of a rhinoceros, Stetson’s voice changes dramatically and his erratic behavior is made all the more disturbing by his abrupt increases in vocal volume.
At the end of the play, Daisy and Berenger are left to examine the world that has transformed before their eyes into something unfamiliar and strange. Unlike in the case of a zombie apocalypse, the rhinoceritis epidemic was propagated by the will of the people. When individuals transform, it is only after they have been taken in by the allure of existing in a different condition.
While Berenger argues that giving in to the disease, becoming rough-skinned and cold, would be morally wrong, Daisy is a realist. She points out that right and wrong are only relative.
“There’s no such thing as absolute right,” Schneider says, “It’s the world that’s right—not you and me.”
Her rationalizations resemble those of Berenger’s other colleagues who have already transformed into the animals outside. Such statements on moral relativism, delivered with flair by the actors, call to mind ongoing debates about the role of the majority in legislating the behavior of an entire population. Though Ionesco’s work is referencing the effects of Nazism, which were undoubtedly more horrific than the populist movements springing forth in the United States, it still leaves us with food for thought.
Before descending upon the herd to join them in their quest for a new unity, one character (played by Rohan Subramanian ‘20) puts aptly how many Americans may have felt as they cast their clothespin votes this November:
“What’s wrong with being a rhinoceros? I’m all for change!”
If enough people want it, change will emerge. But in what form?