The New Jersey Shakespeare Festival at mid-season, following admirable summer turns with “The Forest” by Russian playwright Alexander Ostrovsky and an enchanting production of “Twelfth Night,” has uncaged the rarely produced avant-garde comedy, “Rhinoceros,” by the influential father of absurdist theatre Eugene Ionesco. Braced with an always disturbing and timely relevance and a decided dark edge, the festival production is outrageously funny — when it doesn’t get bogged down by some second act philosophical tedium — and it is acted with enough distinction and clarity to warrant the stomping of hoofs.
In his allegorical farce, the Romanian-born French playwright ridiculed the establishment, intellectual pomposity and the frailties of mankind. He mocked convention and human behavior. One by one, the townspeople of a small French village turn into raging rhinoceroses. His play is inspired lunacy, wildly innovative and irreverent, but always refreshingly thought provoking. Ionesco selected rhinos for his symbolic beasts because they were the most ferocious animals in the world, the most stupid and certainly the ugliest. Reflecting the climate of Europe as it was after the moral crisis of the second World War, the play appears as chillingly valid today as it was in 1960.
Jean, (Andrews Weems), a fastidious and inflated windbag, bullies his insecure little co-worker Berringer (Paul Neibanck), reprimanding him for his dress code and personal hygiene, his careless drinking habits, and general attitude toward his job and society. Jean is critical of all of those around him, even inciting a heated debate as to whether the first sighted rhino running rampant in the town streets was Asiatic or African. In his amazing metamorphosis, Weems, as the blustery irascible Jean, bellows and grunts like a caged pachyderm. A migraine headache suggests the growth of a horn emerging above his brow. His skin becomes as tough as the hide of a jungle beast. He stomps and snorts and tosses furniture about. It’s the comic high point of the play and Weems literally galumphs with it.
Neibanck, as the pathetic little ineffective clerk and mankind’s sole survivor, offers a sustained performance as Berringer, but misses the whimsical irony and comic edge of the role. It’s an appealing and confident straight-ahead performance, but the character is wide open for comic invention that never seems to surface.
Daisy, acted by Katie MacNicholas with a kind of insouciant charm, is the sweet little ingenue out of control — one minute a naive secretary, later a prospective housewife and homemaker, and finally, a supple and sexual conquest of the rampaging beasts.
There are several finely tuned supportive roles such as Robert Hock as an echoing yes man who agrees with all the foolish babbling on the subject of feline lifespan spouted by a blustery logician (Roy Cockrum). Other standouts are Debbie Lee Jones as the devoted wife who follows a hapless husband who has turned into a beast, and Helmer Augustus Cooper, as the frustrated doubting employer who rules his office with an iron fist.
Following the first half, which is rich with feisty frivolity and vaudeville hokum, the play tends to limp instead of gallop with a great deal of blowzy rhetoric on the collapse of society and mankind’s foolish foibles. The laughter lessens once Weems enacts his outrageous transformation of man to beast. However Paul Mullins’ direction has heightened the play’s antic mood with some infectious and exaggerated folly, and deepened the mood of its dark finale.
The galloping rhinos are first introduced by effective thundering sound effects and a cloud of dust. Later they appear — rather ominously in upstage shadows — embodied by actors wearing great boxed and horned heads. Tech credits are a distinct asset, from Michael Schwikardt’s cartoony set to Richard Dionne’s roaring and rumbling sound design.