Mob Mentality

What can one lonely man do to fight the madness of the masses? This is the question posed by Eugene Ionesco's wildly inventive Rhinoceros. Written in the '50s, in the desolate wake of Hitler's and Mussolini's horrifying regimes, Ionesco's absurd script imagines a world where every citizen -- save one -- chooses to become a raging rhinoceros simply because that's what everyone else is doing. By the story's end, only one man is left, and the beasts are literally snorting at his door.

As one of the most influential playwrights from the Theater of the Absurd movement, Ionesco was deeply committed to his ideas about nonconformity. In Rhinoceros, he warns against the dangers of the mob. There's no theater group in town better equipped to explore Ionesco's bizarre imagination than Infernal Bridegroom Productions.

The story starts off with two men, Jean (Kyle Sturdivant) and Berenger (Troy Schulze), conversing at an outdoor cafe. Scrubbed clean and impeccably dressed, Jean is a model citizen who argues for moderation in all things and rails against Berenger's inability to get with the program. A nonconformist in almost every way, Berenger can't even get himself to work on time.

Nearby, a Logician (Charlie Scott) teaches another man (Cary Winscott) how to tackle problems through a litany of silly syllogisms that are both invalid and absurd. And logic doesn't help at all when the picture-perfect street scene is interrupted by a thundering roar in the distance that turns out to be nothing less than a rhinoceros hammering down the road.

In classic Ionesco style, a long conversation ensues about whether the rhinoceros has one horn or two and whether it's Asiatic or African. The real question, how the rhinoceros got there in the first place, is quickly lost in the ridiculousness of petty squabbles. In this way, Ionesco shows us how mob-thinking is inherently dangerous. The loudest voice takes over no matter how foolish the words are.

The show's long opening buzzes with electric irony, and director Tamarie Cooper wastes no time establishing her affinity for the play's strange take on humanity. Energy abounds in this production. Scott and Winscott are especially hysterical as they try to work logically through questions about what a dog is and how many horns a rhinoceros has. And when Jodi McLaughlin (who plays the Housewife) rushes on stage with her rhino-trampled cat, the moment is screamingly funny.

It soon becomes clear that people everywhere are turning into rhinoceroses. But the nonconformist Berenger doesn't seem affected by this turn of events until his friend Jean morphs into a snorting beast right before his horrified eyes. Sturdivant all but walks off with the show in this outrageous scene. His pompous Jean starts off not feeling well. His clothes are too hot. He starts snorting, moving from pacing to galloping as he sheds his clothes. Soon he begins to punctuate his speech with a spitting growl. And all this is perfectly timed. It's a remarkably long scene, but Sturdivant finds a way of building nuance into each small change, resulting in a performance that is one of the best reasons to go to the theater this year.

The second act loses a bit of steam as Ionesco belabors his point. But in the end, when Berenger is holed up in his apartment against the insanity of the world outside, the moment speaks volumes about the terrible paradox of nonconformity. Berenger has his ideas and his humanity but no one to share them with. He's totally alone.

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Lee Williams