"It's silly to get worked up because a few people decide to change their skins."
So goes the excuse as easygoing provincial townsfolk spontaneously transform into the rampaging pachyderms of Eugene Ionesco's seminal absurdist satire, "Rhinoceros."
In the easy surrender of their very humanity lies the play's warning about the fragility of civilized norms we take for granted, illuminated with darkly hilarious urgency in Pacific Resident Theatre superbly staged and disconcertingly timely revival.
Written in 1959 in alarmed reaction to the mid-20th century proliferation of totalitarian "isms" (fascism, communism, nationalism — name your ideological poison of choice), Ionesco's play takes aim at their common underlying roots in the seductively corrosive lure of herd mentality.
Exemplifying that corruption, director Guillermo Cienfuegos (under his acting name Alex Fernandez), appears as Jean, the impeccably groomed, platitude-gushing epitome of cultural refinement. We first see him scolding his slovenly, alcoholic friend Bérenger (Keith Stevenson) for the latter's antisocial failings. Jean's eventual rhinocratic transformation — his voice, posture and mannerisms succumbing to bestial impulses — is a master class in performance all its own.
With its 17 characters and four scene changes, "Rhinoceros" is itself something of a lumbering beast, and Cienfuegos' faithful staging proves all the more impressive in taming the play's unrulier idiosyncrasies.
Precise comic timing and cleanly individuated characterizations sustain momentum and focus as Rhinoceritis spreads among the uniformly excellent supporting ensemble. Ionesco's potentially deadly penchant for repetition is rendered skillfully enough to convey the intended message about conformity's stultifying effect without inducing it in the audience.
Even the talky final scene — cycling through pseudo-logical rationalization, moral relativism and romantic illusion — benefits from Stevenson's endearingly floundering Bérenger. Neither brilliant nor heroic, he's nevertheless the lone holdout who suggests that the real hope of successful resistance lies in basic human decency.
The comfortably detached perspective of a stable Western democracy has afforded critics (myself included) the longtime luxury of discounting Ionesco's pointed social commentary as comic exaggeration. While the comedy in "Rhinoceros" remains as sharp as ever, when it comes to exaggeration — nowadays, not so much.
Running time: 3 hours
Where: Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 10.
Info: (310) 822-8392 or pacificresidenttheatre.com/rhinoceros/
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