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Review: Ungainly yet powerful charge of the 'Rhinoceros'

Eugene Ionesco's absurdist tale always feels drawn out, but in a visiting Theatre de la Ville-Paris production, its horror shakes the foundations.

By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic

7:30 PM PDT, September 23, 2012

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Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota's smart, sleek production of Eugene Ionesco's "Rhinoceros" at Royce Hall was a sight for sore eyes over the weekend. Not that this offering from Théâtre de la Ville-Paris convinced me that the play is entirely deserving of its status as an absurdist classic. This may be the playwright's most popular effort, but it's hardly his most theatrically effective. Yet the return of international theater to UCLA is undeniably an occasion for rejoicing.

Formerly known as UCLA Live (which housed the suspended International Theatre Festival), the program has a new title, Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, and a galvanizing new leader, Kristy Edmunds, who greeted the audience Friday with words of excitement about hosting the U.S. premiere of this French production. Edmunds evidently thinks globally but knows how to interact locally — which is precisely the skill set needed for her challenging job. For those who believe that Los Angeles should have a theater culture commensurate with its world capital standing in art, classical music and architecture, there is every reason to believe that Edmunds will make an invaluable contribution to the aesthetic diversity of our stage ecology.

Ionesco's play poses some thorny problems in performance, the chief one being its dramatic sprawl. The critic Kenneth Tynan once described Ionesco as "a brilliant, anarchic sprinter unfitted by temperament for the steady, provident mountaineering of the three-act form." "Rhinoceros," which tells the tale of a provincial French town overrun with a curious plague causing ordinary citizens to turn into rampaging pachyderms, has a startlingly original premise, but its metaphorical potency is weakened by being stretched along the lines of a conventional plot.

To put it another way, Ionesco is better at enacting meaning in wild, humorous bursts than in channeling it into systematic argument. But Demarcy-Mota's direction, by avoiding so many of the pitfalls common to productions that want to emphasize the play's political relevance, allows us to connect to Ionesco's deeply human vision, an anti-ideological stance embodied in the central character of Bérenger, the lone holdout in this contagion of brutal conformity.

Serge Maggiani beautifully captures Bérenger's bedraggled, unheroic humanity. Shirt partly untucked, hair in need of a comb, pallor and squint suggestive of one too many glasses of port the night before, the character is an embodiment of the instinctual man, neither devoid of conscience nor overburdened by it. His ability to resist the mad frenzy prompting his neighbors one by one to sprout horns seems to have something to do with his acceptance that the human being already is an animal.

Ionesco loves nothing better than making a monkey out of those who enshrine logic as their god. The play, which was directed by its star Jean-Louis Barrault in its 1960 Paris premiere, is haunted by the memory of the Nazification of Europe. But the real attack, as Ionesco took pains to point out, is against the "collective hysteria and the epidemics that lurk beneath the surface of reason and ideas but are nonetheless serious collective diseases passed off as ideologies." Propaganda, in short, in both its intellectual and anti-intellectual varieties.

Treating the work appropriately as tragic farce, Demarcy-Mota kept the staging swathed in darkness. Yves Collet's superb scenic and lighting scheme, bracketing off the action in pockets of illumination, contributed to the sense that this raging rhinoceros syndrome is an internal one. Ionesco wasn't indulging himself in cartoon high jinks: His characters are very clearly succumbing to something base within themselves.

With every new rhino conversion the set began to quake more violently — so much so that the actors at times had to be acrobatic not to lose their footing, especially in the second act office scene daringly arrayed on a collapsing elevated platform. But the production, performed in French with English supertitles that could have been better situated so that reading and watching weren't such far apart activities, remarkably balanced the real and the surreal. The destructive consequences of the action were frighteningly evident, but with a dreamlike quality that made it seem as though the disease's real target was the unconscious.

When Jean (Hugues Quester), Bérenger's hectoring friend, transmogrified, all we saw was the outline of his shape altering itself in a rubbery door. And when Daisy (Céline Carrère) eventually decides it's time for her to follow in the bestial path, the image was that of someone leaping off a bridge under which her friends and family are drowning.

Despite the extraneous prologue that was added by the director (lines taken from Ionesco's novel "The Solitary"), this was a concentrated production of a play that can feel rather diffuse in performance. The ungainliness was still there, but so too was the timeless horror.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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