Review: Rhinoceros by Theatre at UBC

Born in Romania in 1909, playwright Eugene Ionesco had a front row seat for some of the most devastating political and social movements of the 20th century. With fascism to the west, communism to the east, and the nationalist Iron Guard in his own backyard he experienced the multitude of ways in which these movements could subvert humanity and recruit individuals from all walks of society.

In his 1959 play Rhinoceros, one of the great Theatre of the Absurd masterpieces, Ionesco reflects, criticizes, and explores the forces that spawn such conformity by telling the story of a small French town whose inhabitants turn into the titular pachyderms.

Xander Williams and Lara Deglan. Photo by Nancii Bernard.

Director Chelsea Haberlin displays a nuanced understanding of the immensely funny and thought-provoking work, resulting in a rollicking, entertaining evening whose weighty implications insidiously manifest only toward the conclusion and upon post-show reflection.

Our unlikely hero in this endeavour is Bérenger, a tardy, alcoholic everyman who struggles with apathy. In the first act, he even finds it hard to take interest in a rhinoceros stampeding past him at a café. The role is played with guileless affability by Matt Reznek. He particularly excels at finding a balance in Ionesco's challenging language, which (eventually) calls tempestuous displays of emotion while still articulating complex thoughts and ideas.

Matt Reznek as Bérenger. Photo Nancii Bernard.

Over the course of the play Bérenger watches the worst residents of his town succumb to rhinoceritis, followed by those he counts as friends and holds in high esteem. The entire cast is immensely strong, but townsfolk who particularly stood out included Joel Garner as Bérenger's friend Jean, whose transformation into a rhino was a feat of physical and vocal theatricality; Georgia Beaty, as Bérenger's object of affection Daisy, whose unlikely combination of earnestness and dryness resulted in hilarity; and Xander Williams' Logician, a swaggering, far-too-enthusiastic individual who nearly stole the first act with a ranting, near-nonsense lecture.

The colourful, madcap story woven by Haberlin and her cast is served and enhanced by beautiful, smart design. Christina Dao's costume designs are stylish and vibrant, suggesting both a bygone era and a heightened, comic reality. Matthew Norman's set places the Chan Centre's Telus Studio Space in its rarely seen round configuration. On the floor and two tiers of balcony the audience encircle a raised platform on which the action plays out.

Joel Garner, Matt Reznek, Daniel Meron & Xander Williams. Photo Nancii Bernard.

Haberlin uses this staging to brilliant effect, creating a visceral experience that taps into some of the play's deepest themes. While the human action plays out on the platform, the auditorium slowly, almost imperceptibly becomes the domain of rhinos, who travel about it in a synchronized sliding and stomping motion that is both militaristic and percussive. By the end of the play they are everywhere, looming over shoulders, parading in front of seats, and even peering down from high up in the lighting grid. The effect is that a familiar, safe space is taken over by an outsider- the same experience poor Bérenger lives through and one that must have been familiar to many mid-century Europeans.

 
Theatre at UBC's Rhinoceros runs until February 9 at the Chan Centre's Telus Studio Theatre.
 
Tickets & info at theatre.ubc.ca.
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