Theatre review: Rhinoceros finds a solid footing

Commenting once on the critical response to Rhinoceros, playwright Eugene Ionesco said his play was, above all, a tragedy.   The Theatre at UBC production currently on stage embraces that notion, finding solid and realistic footings within this absurdist play.

Matt Reznek and Georgia Beaty in the Theatre at UBC production of Rhinoceros. Photo by Tim Matheson.An allegory for the rise of Nazism, Rhinoceros is based on Ionesco’s experiences in Romania that inspired him to oppose conformism and totalitarianism.  As the residents of the small French village begin tranforming into rhinos, an unlikely resister to the “epidemic” emerges in the normally apathetic Berenger.   As the lone man still standing by the end of the show’s nearly 150 minutes (with intermission), Berenger finds his life changed as much as the other residents who are quickly becoming horned pachyderms.

As Berenger, Matt Reznek (with Georgia Beaty in the photo right by Tim Matheson) gives a powerful performance that sees his own transformation from initial disinterest to a steadfast declaration of resistance.  Reznek plays well against Joel Garner’s Jean, his arrogant best-friend,  whose own transformation into a rhinoceros in one of the show’s highlights.

The ultimate test though comes in the cast’s ability to tread the fine line between the absurdity and reality and where it could easily be played for more laughs (it is still quite funny), there is a solid base in presenting the material with the seriousness that Ionesco himself demands.  Even as the individuality of the character’s “walks” morph into the forceful and aggressive rhinos it is not played for laughs, but with underlying understanding of the more serious text.  While much of that understanding is done at an actor’s level, director Chelsea Haberlin has obviously gone to great pains here to ensure a consistency.

Presented in the round, Haberlin does lose some of the visual impact from Matthew Norman’s grand set design for those, like us, that found themselves looking up to the central stage platform; there is no question those on the tiers above had a richer experience.  But while our vantage point was not ideal, we were able to share in a bit of stage magic by witnessing how a collapsing staircase was accomplished.

At times Haberlin had her rhinoceroses wandering through the various levels of the theatre.  While an impressive display as they lumbered through the space in their methodical and syncopated rhythm, it created a cacophony that at times drowned out the action on the central stage.

Christina Dao’s period costumes were a wonderful contrast between the colourful pre-transformation and the drab grey as the townsfolk gradually grew horns.

As is usual with Theatre at UBC productions the program is a rich compendium of information, with some of the most revealing pieces in this particular companion guide coming from Ionesco’s own thoughts on his play.  It was such a pleasure to see a production that stayed true to those thoughts.

3 Out of 5 StarsRhinoceros

By Eurgen Ionesco.  Directed by Chelsea Haberlin.  A Theatre at UBC prodution.  On stage at the Telus Studio Theatre at the Chan Centre through February 9, 2013.  Visit http://www.theatre.ubc.ca for tickets and information.

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