Ionesco’s not so absurd “Rhinoceros” warns of the fascist takeover
Kendrah McKay and Keith Stevenson | Vitor Martins

VENICE, Calif.—We all know people, don’t we—relatives, friends, co-workers, neighbors—who seemingly out of nowhere molt their cultured, tolerant liberal skins and turn into xenophobic, ugly racist patriotic chauvinists.

Playwright Eugene Ionesco, born in Romania in 1909, witnessed just that in his native country, which entered the fascist camp led by the hateful Iron Guard in the lead-up to World War II. His most popular full-length play, Rhinoceros, dating from 1959, explores how one by one the citizens of a small provincial French town shed their civilized façade and become destructive, untamed stampeding animals. Ionesco had re-established himself in Paris after the war, so his play could well be seen as an indictment of French collaborationists in the notorious pro-fascist Vichy régime. Wherever you are, it can happen here.

The highly regarded Pacific Resident Theatre (PRT) presents this classic in Derek Prouse’s translation, directed by Guillermo Cienfuegos, who recently helmed the award-winning Dutch Masters. “The play is a wild, hilarious farce—with a lot of bite,” says Cienfuegos. “I think of it as Kafka meets Monty Python. Ultimately, a warning about how gradually authoritarian and totalitarian mindsets can infiltrate, grow, transform and conquer entire communities—even the whole world. It traces and points out the different stages of this phenomenon as a caution that one must reject joining the herd and always hold on to their individual humanity.”

“I don’t know if you have noticed it,” the playwright said of his Rhinoceros, “but when people no longer share your opinions, when you can no longer make yourself understood by them, one has the impression of being confronted with monsters—rhinos, for example. They have that mixture of candor and ferocity. They would kill you with the best of consciences.”

A post-war leader of the Theatre of the Absurd movement, Ionesco profoundly altered the face of modern drama, with more than twenty plays, as well as stories, memoirs, theoretical essays and a novel. His principal other theatrical works include The Bald Soprano, The Lesson, The Chairs, and The New Tenant. In his world, illogical events create an atmosphere both comic and grotesque.

Nineteen named characters populate the town, played by twelve actors. The two lead figures are the nebbishy Bérenger (Keith Stevenson), a self-effacing office worker who drinks “so I’m not frightened any longer,” and his good friend Jean (Alex Fernandez) who is the consummately prim, prissy and controlling dandy. “The superman,” he says to Bérenger in a conversation that evokes Nietzschean categories, “is the man who fulfills his duty.”

Now, out of context that is not such an alarming statement: It could be said in almost any society. Yet knowing what we know, it sounds an alarm. This is a man who will conform, will buckle under, will take orders. Who will morph into a rhinoceros.

Other town denizens include tradespeople, an office manager and several of his browbeaten employees, and various neighbors. The fine cast also includes Sarah Brooke, Peter Elbling, Brad Greenquist, Jeff Lorch, Kendrah McKay, Robert Lesser, Melissa Weber Bales, Carole Weyers, and Sarah Zinsser

The Busker (Melinda West) on her perambulating accordion is perfect, aurally recreating the characteristic French mood that allows us to sit back and comfortably imagine ourselves on a familiar street with fresh croissants and an apéritif.

Sarah Brooke plays The Logician, who cleverly twists words and ideas into nonsensical syllogisms, leaving all those within his hearing utterly befuddled under an avalanche of what we might today call “alternative facts.” When reason has broken apart on the shoals of meaningless pedantry, the road toward a dystopian universe is well paved.

The copy editor Botard is an interesting character in that he appears at first glance to be a skeptic, a rationalist and atheist, a strong defender of workers’ rights, and is even accused of belonging to a clandestine subversive organization. He sees infamous plots and “fake news” in the journalistic reportage of the rhinos’ appearance on the scene. Yet he too succumbs to the epidemic of rhinoceritis: “We must move with the times.”

The lawyer Dudard is the classic middle of the road apologist. “You mustn’t dramatize the situation,” he says. It’s only “a few cases…it’s not fatal. Certain illnesses are good for you…. The best protection against this thing is will power,” and after all, “they even have a certain natural innocence—if you ignore them they won’t bother you.” Guess how he winds up.

Bérender ends up affirming his humanity until the end. Perhaps Ionesco was thinking of some of the heroes of the underground and Holocaust resistance—who were they, where did they come from, what gave them the moral fiber to stand firm against fascism when so many around them caved?

Production values are very high: A clever set design by David Mauer, great lighting effects by Justin Preston, Christine Cover Ferro’s superb costume design. Christopher Moscatiello’s sound design creates believable rhinos crashing across the stage.

Repertory theatres plan their schedules often years in advance, so I can’t say exactly when PRT programmed Rhinoceros but it sure is timely now. As it was in 1961, when the play received its memorable Broadway production, re-imagined in America, not France, with the formerly blacklisted Zero Mostel in the role of Jean, renamed John. Audiences in that house easily recognized the rhinoceros friends of Sen. Joe McCarthy, Roy Cohn and the just-defeated presidential candidate Dick Nixon.

So here we are more than half a century later, and I’m seeing a lot of clumsy horned creatures smashing their way through the halls of Congress. They belong in a zoo! I do believe that Bérenger will not be left standing alone on the battlefield as today’s drama in the class war plays out.

Rhinoceros runs through September 10, Thurs.-Sat. at 8 pm, and 3 pm on Sun. (Note: No performances on Aug. 4, 5, and 6). Pacific Resident Theatre is located at 703 Venice Blvd. in Venice Calif. 90291. Tickets can be purchased online at or by calling (310) 822-8392. Parking is free in the lot behind the theater and on the street.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.