Monday, September 18, 2017

70 (2017-2018): Review: RHINOCEROS (seen September 16, 2017)

“The Horns of a Dilemma”

There was a time, around a half-century ago, when Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco, who wrote in French, was the talk of the theatre world. His serio-comic plays exceeded the bounds of their nonrealistic style to make audiences laugh at the absurdism of man’s existence while scratching their heads over his deeper meanings.

Caraid O'Brien. Photo: Pedro Hernandez.
One of his most popular plays was Rhinoceros (1959), which became a regular standby at regional and college theatres following its 1961 Broadway debut starring Zero Mostel as Jean in an awesome, Tony Award-winning performance. I can still remember the sheer force of the scene in which Mostel virtually became a rhinoceros before our eyes.

The current New Yiddish Rep revival at the Castillo Theatre, is, as the company’s name suggests, in Yiddish (translated by Eli Rosen, who plays Jean), a first for the play; English surtitles make it easy to follow. This production follows a not widely noticed, very modestly received, summer of 2016 revival by the Seeing Place Theater. 
Eli Rosen, Luzer Twersky. Photo: Pedro Hernandez.
It’s easy enough to agree that the play’s focus is and will remain apposite, i.e., the tendency of people to become sucked up into mass movements such that their individuality is sacrificed, not to mention the difficulty of resisting that suction. It can refer to anything conceived of as a mob mentality, from fascism (hinted at here by a goose-stepping character) to communism to Trumpism, which, at the moment, would seem to be its most beckoning target. 

Translator Rosen suggests in his program note that the play can even be seen as critical of Hasidic Jews whose religious dogmatism prevents them from casting off their orthodox constraints. 

It’s also true that Ionesco’s choice to express this human tendency to succumb to mob psychology by showing the participants of a French town becoming rhinoceroses is a deliciously theatrical one that offers directors and actors wonderful opportunities for interesting performances.

However, the production runs two hours and, lacking anything even approaching first-class direction and acting, it rapidly descends into a lengthy talkfest (even with its three acts trimmed, as here, to two); its occasional comic dialogue can do little to prevent the second act, which is basically an escalation of what we already learned in Act One, from crushing boredom. In fact, the most thrilling moment, Jean’s transformation, comes toward the end of Act One, after which he vanishes.

The sad fact, and I won’t belabor it, is that the New Yiddish Rep production—set design (if you could call it that) by Moshe Yassur and David Mandelbaum, costumes by Susannah Norris-Lindsay, lighting by Evan Kerr, and sound (perhaps the best ingredient) by Jesse Freedman—is simply unworthy of the play. Only if Rhinoceros is on your bucket list of famous plays you’ve never seen might you find a visit worth your while.  

Yassur’s slapdash direction only exacerbates the campus-level quality of most of his actors, whose greatest accomplishment is that they speak such excellent Yiddish. This is a language reportedly dying yet that keeps bouncing back to life in productions like this and those by the far more accomplished National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene.

The 12 actors, especially Luzer Twersky as Berenger, Rosen as Jean, and Malky Goldman as Daisy, deliver their lines (projected in English on the set’s walls) with consistent, but not well-regulated, energy and point; nonetheless, working on a bare stage with little but two unadorned gray walls and a few chairs (surely a budget issue), they and their comrades can do little to look or behave naturally or compose themselves in interesting arrangements.

The blocking is about as clumsy and unorchestrated as can be imagined; the actors, unsure of themselves, stand around or move aimlessly; there’s no sense of place; and the pacing is erratic: the result is artistically dismal.

Oh, well. Why keep beating a dead rhino?


Castillo Theatre
343 W. 42nd St., NYC