Rhinoceros begins with stillness. While the rest of the production is full of chaotic and frantic energy, the play opens simply, with all seven cast members onstage, clad in identical white jumpsuits, eyes closed, exemplifying the ideal tabula rasa—a blank slate. As a green light dims, Berenger, played by Emily Sheeran (U1 English), raises her hand, snaps her fingers, and the story begins.
Besides the deeper connection to the themes of morality and responsibility that permeate Rhinoceros, director Guy Ettlin’s (U3 Psychology and Economics) choice to place his entire cast onstage for the pre-show is a testament to the production’s biggest asset—its ensemble cast. Adapted from Eugène Ionesco’s 1959 play of the same name, Ettlin, along with the Players’ Theatre, have deftly transposed Ionesco’s script into an ambiguous setting. Neither time, nor place, is ever made clear. However, the tale of Berenger and the Rhinoceros still rings true in our political climate. Written in the absurdist style that exploded post-Second World War as a response to Fascism and Nazism, Rhinoceros serves well here as a warning for modern viewers about the dangers of conformity.
Rhinoceros chronicles the tales of a small town’s inhabitants, focusing on the alcoholic everyman Berenger, who in this production is gendered ambiguously and portrayed by Sheeran. Half philosophical rumination on the self and half slapstick comedy, the play centers around a rhinoceros that stomps by a café early one morning. As Berenger and his friend Jean (played by a brilliant Steven Finley, U3 Psychology) argue about the existence of the rhinoceros, debating whether it has one horn or two, or whether it is Asian or African, a mass metamorphosis begins to occur. One by one, the characters lose their humanity until they become—you guessed it—rhinoceroses.
The pure commitment and enthusiasm of the actors allow the script to shine. It’s a shame that the production team couldn’t keep up with its performers—the costuming and set design leave something to be desired. A black box space is a wonderful canvas, however the minimalist set pieces seem hastily done, undermining the legitimacy of the performers.
Thankfully, all seven cast members dive straight into the rich and clever script—nothing is held back in this black box theater. It’s easy to take an absurdist piece and perform it for its superficial humour. Occasionally Rhinoceros veers into this territory, but, thankfully, there are crisp, striking performances that ensure that the show does not fall flat.
Olivier Bishop-Mercier (U3 Theatre and Math) successfully slips between three roles: The Logician, Mrs. Boeuf, and Tony, all the while creating distinct and lively characterizations. Liana Brooks (U2 Anatomy and Cell Biology), fluidly switches between genders as the Housewife and Mr. Dudard, appearing in the first act as a voice of mania, then in the second, of reason.
Altogether, this small ensemble manages to generate the energy of a cast twice their size, and their breaking of the fourth wall succeeds in keeping the audience’s attention.
“You must learn to be more detached and… see the funny side of things,” Dudard says to Berenger.
The two look down onto the masses of rhinoceroses that stampede beneath Berenger’s apartment. Besides being the motto of the play, it’s also a message to the audience member: To look past theatrical conventions, and to simply enjoy the play that is being presented to you. Rhinoceros makes it easy.