“But they looked upon you as an alarmist, then a nuisance, finally an enemy to be run down. They looked like they wanted to lower their heads and charge.”
~ Eugène Ionesco (1985)
I think you should watch the film. Even though this ultimately is a review of the play which was bravely directed by Lauren Warhol Caldwell at the University of Florida, you should go into it having seen the film. As of today - 11/30/2022, the link works. If it goes down, let me know and I'll do my best to update it. I do want to preface your viewing by quoting the opening title card. Let me remind you, this film came out in 1974. This being 2022 is 48 years later.
"What you are about to see could never take place. Several eminent scientists have assured us of this fact. For, as they are quick to point out ... the world is flat."
Rhinoceros is nothing to fool with. The play has three acts and runs nearly three hours (about 154 pages of script). It's a beast, no pun intended. Immediately upon entering the Nadine McGuire Black Box at U.F., I am immediately struck with the brilliance of the set design (Laura Swarner). The house rule is that one is not to take photographs. Here's mine:
So, the play. In this dystopian oppressive angular set, we see our scenes (restaurant, office, bedroom) as aspects of a prison factory. Just getting in and out of the office requires an emergency worker with a big ladder. Our protagonist, Bérenger (Bryce Hagen), extolls the virtues of drink to his fussy extroverted companion, Jean (Joseph Meisner) in a restaurant. Jean: "You reek of alcohol." Bérenger: "You always look so immaculate." Jean: "Look! A Rhinoceros!" The seats shake, a sad grunting trumpeting sounds in the distance (brilliant sound design by Storm Smith - and that's the greatest of all sound designer names). The lights flicker. The start of transformations-to-come begins.
As an absurdist piece, Caldwell's directorial choices are all across the play in a signature way, and expertly so. Her stage pictures throughout resonate with emotional content and stunning significance. The scene just before one of the two intermissions finds a circle of former townspeople, adorned in horrifyingly stylized Rhinoceros costumes (designed by Jade Zhang). Absolutely chilling. A sudden break in the dialogue jump-cuts to a retro song; the cast stops what they're doing and breaks out in dance! Daisy (Katie Medved), a modish ingénue in a daisy dress, parasol, and Lana Turner sunglasses commands the stage causing all manner of titillation and discomfort between the two gentlemen. A waiter with great flair (Gianfranco Madonia) enraptures the audience with prodigious physical comedy and wordlessly steals just about every scene he's in. A logician (Conor Matthews, masked for Covid safety) tries to explain to an old gentleman (Nicholas Bennett) what a syllogism is. Strangely, the real-world need for masking only makes the dystopian nature of the circumstances even better. It's hard to get a mask on a Rhinoceros, as we've seen. Great standout dramatic turns from the entire cast, especially Alan Toney in a dual role as Mr. Botard and the Cafe Proprietor.
The most physically demanding role besides that of the lead is Meisner as Jean. It's awesome to watch this actor embody such a proper oafish dandy coming apart slowly at the seams. We can almost see his body turn to leather as he huffs and puffs, evolving before our eyes into the monster we knew was coming. He almost didn't need the final costume; so effective was his voice and bodywork.
In the end, though, the demanding role of Bérenger finds Bryce Hagen equal to the task. He plays a man going through the emotional ringer of losing all his companions to the scourge of the mysterious Rhinoceros transformation, and yet his resilience, his absolute refusal to capitulate, his final decision to stay human, a man alone against the tides of oppression is, if not a victory of permanence, a victory of conscience and moral dignity. The actor was all in!
To stage this play in modern times - Rhinoceros being a long, strange, and challenging piece of theatre, is a triumph for the cast and crew, the program at U.F., and Director Lauren Warhol Caldwell. Further, this is the kind of theatre you won't see everywhere. This is why I return to the other goal of presenting my experience of the play. Theater is there for you, all over the place. As I've said many times before and it bears repeating: Storytelling is the root of culture. Without culture, people cannot survive on the face of the Earth.
With kind regard to all theatre in Gainesville, whether it be the U.F. Blackbox or Constans, the A.R.T., the G.C.P., The Hippodrome, the Performing Arts Center, The Florida Players, Shakespeare in the Park, The Jackson N. Sasser Fine Arts Hall at Santa Fe College, The Star Center Theatre, the Vam York Theatre, The Actor's Warehouse, Buchholz Drama, or wherever one can find or make theatre, get thee there soon and often.
“Ideologies separate us. Dreams and anguish bring us together.”
― Eugene Ionesco