Theatre de la Ville performed Ionesco’s “Rhinocéros” at Cal Performances Sept. 27-29. Photo: Jean-Louis Fernandez
éros” at Cal Performances Sept. 27-29. Photo: Jean-Louis Fernandez

The tragedy of a lonely man, confronted by his mortality and morality, has long been the stuff of playwrights, novelists, choreographers, composers and philosophers.

In a four-show Cal Performance appearance by the Théâtre de la Ville-Paris at Zellerbach Hall, Romanian-French playwright Eugéne Ionesco’s 1957 short story Rhinocéros explored solitary pathos in a metaphorical trampling of conformism in three acts.

The play, performed in French with English subtitles, follows the story of Bérenger, a disheveled white-collar grunt who’s prone to drink and to ogle Daisy, a coworker he adores. Falling instantly into arguments — with best friend Jean, with the competitor for Daisy’s affections, Dudard, and most often, with himself — Bérenger carves an anguished niche as rhinoceroses stampede into his village. Gradually, nearly everyone around him is swept up in desperate submission and they become the very beasts they initially fear.

The rhinoceros allegory is autobiographical to the play’s author, for Ionesco is a product of 1930s’ Romania. He witnessed fascism’s insidious effect on his fellow citizens. Instead of presenting a tyrannical terrorist as the root of  evil, the production bends a finger inward, pointing to the human urge to cluster. The enemy, therefore, is within. Whether it is political parties, gangs, or drinking buddies in a café, the tight, twisting knot of human connectivity, when taken to an extreme, becomes a means of near suffocation.

Along the way, the company tempers anguish with consummate expressions of fury and hilarity. There’s a decidedly European air to Rhinocéros’ distraught physicality and bitter humor, despite the fact that today’s global art scene blurs the edges defining American and non-American productions.

Or, possibly, the divide was created by language, which forced non-French speaking audience members to tear their gaze (too far) from the actors’ desolate faces and apoplectic gestures long enough to read the subtitles. Frequently, the clipped, sarcastic lines caused half the audience to chuckle immediately, with the English-only crowd echoing two or three seconds behind, creating an eery atmosphere that heightened the tension projected from the stage.

Oddly, the most soothing element was the gnarly, green-skinned, one- or two-horned beasts (an ongoing dispute about the exact number provided a hilarious counterpart to all the rage). Their deep, resonant groans, swelling from invisible sources in the early scenes, became, in the end, soft, adorable sing-song accompaniment in the play’s final moments. The rhinoceros figures, when they at last appeared, were equally engaging: emerging from the gloom and hovering in a way both haunting and whimsical, depending on one’s mindset.

The finest theatrical productions move audiences to feel, to question, to find themselves remembering the experience long after the ticket stubs have been tossed. Although director Emmanual Demarcy-Mota’s cast managed to extract striking performances out of Ionesco’s heavy-handed script, which occasionally veered into repetitive dogma, it is the set that evoked memorable images. Angled office floors that caused an architectural nightmare of chairs and tables to tangle center stage, will likely come to mind at post-theater staff meetings. Most resonant could be the image of Bérenger at the beginning and the end, poignantly small against an enormous, black backdrop.

Beyond the confines of a play, or a theater hall, the selection of Théâtre de la Ville-Paris and Rhinocéros represents the vision of Cal Performance Director Matias Tarnopolsky. In a front-of-curtain introduction, he called attention to the theater company’s shared history in recounting an appearance by the organization’s first director, Sarah Bernhardt, at Cal’s Greek Theater in 1906. One hundred and six years later, he spoke with obvious pride and good humor of his intention to continue presenting nonconformist works.

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