From their start, Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater never shied away from controversy, opening up with the French play “Rhinoceros,” written by the famed playwright Eugene Ionesco. Thirty-five years later, WHAT has come full circle, staging the absurdist classic once again.
The avant-garde play begins with what appears to be an idyllic 1940s French town. Two friends, Jean (Justin Bennett) and Berenger (David Fraioli) meet up at a café at the same time. Jean is a meticulously dressed intellectual who claims the disheveled-looking Berenger is late. He continues to berate his downtrodden friend, about his many failings, until a rhinoceros appears out of nowhere running down the street.
When a second or perhaps the same rhino runs by (this is hotly debated) the conversation deteriorates, becoming more absurd. The townspeople begin to act with a herd mentality, repeating meaningless phrases like, “well, of all things.” Jean and Berenger argue about the rhino having one horn or two, and whether or not it was an Asiatic or African pachyderm, prompting a racist debate about cultural differences. Ironically, even the local logician (Kelsey Torstveit) offers his assistance, only to put an illogical spin on the situation.
In the next scene, the lovely shops are turned around to create a bureaucratic office setting. An educator (Christopher “Chiz” Chisholm) refutes the presence of any rhinos, calling it “myth” (which is suggestive of “fake news”) as he argues with the thoughtful and open-minded Dudard (Philip Hays). Meanwhile, the conscientious assistant Daisy (Gigi Watson), who is also Berenger’s unrequited love, happily buzzes about doing the menial office work.
When Mrs. Boeuf (Abigail Rose Solomon) reports her husband can’t come to work because he is ill, chaos ensues, as a rhino destroys the stair leading up to the office. Surprisingly, Mrs. Boeuf recognizes the rhino as her husband, and decidedly jumps out the window to be with him. Mr. Papillon (Dick Morrill, who played Berenger in WHAT’s original production of “Rhinoceros”) is more worried about pushing papers and what the management will say about the staircase than about the mysterious rhinos. He insensitively tells Mrs. Boeuf her husband is fired, due to his current state.
As more townspeople turn into rhinos, Berenger goes to Jean’s home to apologize for their fight. Feeling ill, Jean begins charging about the room and making strange noises. Before Berenger’s eyes, his friend turns into a rhino.
Without a mask, prop or makeup, Bennett, playing Jean, impressively transforms himself into a wild animal, contorting his body and altering his speech, slowly becoming incoherent, in turn losing his “humanity.”
Fraioli represents the everyman as Berenger. He masterfully expresses his character’s progression from mild-mannered drunkard to a frenzied, reluctant hero, refusing to join up with the rhinos.
Director Daisy Walker’s attention to detail is notable, balancing the play’s serious commentary about the spread of totalitarianism in Europe and the seemingly lighthearted yet absurd dialogue.
Dan Daly’s scenic design creatively adds to the surrealism of the play. The office scene includes a staircase railing that rises from the stage, suggesting another floor below. The actors complete the illusion by pretending to walk up the imaginary flight of stairs, as they enter the office.
The creative sound design by Grace Oberhofer is key to the play’s success, letting the audience imagine a town overrun by rhinos, by using the sound of grunts and thunderous hooves. Jennifer Spagone’s pristine 1940s clothing adds to the picturesqueness of the town, while the men’s ties, awkwardly askew at different angles and lengths, hints at the chaos and loss of civility to come.
WHAT’s dark and satirical “Rhinoceros” is as timely today as it was in 1959 and artfully speaks to our politically charged times.
Of special note: “Rhinoceros” is running in repertory with “Orson’s Shadow,” so check WHAT’s website for the schedule.
At Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater
Through Sept. 28
Information and reservations: 508-349-9428