Eugene Ionesco's absurdist classic, Rhinoceros, is having its first major New York revival since its Broadway premiere Jan. 9, 1961.
Playwright Theresa Rebeck, whose own A View Of The Dome opened Sept. 30 at New York Theatre Workshop, has adapted Ionesco's wild comedy to include up-to-date reference (such as telephone answering machines) while keeping the story's basic, absurd premise: every person in the world is metamorphosizing into a rhinoceros -- much to the consternation of Berenger, who fights to remain a human being while everyone around him is turning green and leathery. The play has been called a metaphor for man's struggle to remain an individual in the face of mass hysteria.
Jonathan Mandell, of Newsday (Oct. 11), wrote favorably of the production: "The Valiant people clearly don't have lots of money to spend, but the sound system allows for persuasively frightening stampedes, there is a jazzy percussive score, and the cast of 13 is consistently professional... [Peter] Jacobson is no Olivier, and Zach [Grenier] no Zero, but they are both impressive, and they even offer something better than their predecessors" They are not only worth seeing, you CAN still see them...though only, unfortunately, until next week."
The revival, at Off-Broadway's Theatre Four, stars Peter Jacobson as Berenger, and also features Zach Grenier, Erin J. O'Brien, Heather Carnduff, Michael Etheridge, David Green, Burt Edwards, Cortez Nance Jr., J.R. Horne, Geoffrey Owens, Fred Burrell and Elizabeth Van Dyke. Michael Murray directs.
Laurence Olivier starred in the play's London premiere; Zero Mostel (who won a Tony), Anne Jackson and Jean Stapleton were featured in the original New York production. Though the play has been performed thousands of times throughout the world, the four most notable productions of Rhinoceros happened between 1959 and 1961. The world premiere occured in Germany on Nov. 6, 1959. Then the show premiered in Ionesco's native France on Jan. 22, 1960. Orson Welles directed the 1960 Royal Court production in London, which led to Zero Mostel's legendary turn on Broadway the following year.
Though Rhinoceros was penned in the late 1950's, the subject matter was inspired by the Nazi occupation of France (as well as by Kafka's "Metamorphosis," and Ionesco had been writing about men turning into rhinos since the 1940's. This private journal sample dates back to 1940: "The police are rhinoceros. The magistrates are rhinoceros. You are the only man among rhinoceros... You ask yourself, is it true the world was run by men?
Theresa Rebeck's other plays include Spike Heels, The Family Of Mann and Loose Knit.. Rhinoceros inaugurates the Valiant Theatre Company, a not-for profit troupe founded in July by Herbert Beigel, Michael Murray (artistic director) and Edward Vassallo. The company's next play will be a revival of Charles Fuller's A Soldier's Play.
For information and tickets to Rhinoceros, call (212)239-6200.
-- By David Lefkowitz