Beware the Thundering Herds, in "Rhinoceros"

Surrounded by rhinos in the finale of Ionesco's Rhinoceros, presented by Strollers Theatre. 

Surrounded by rhinos in the finale of Ionesco's Rhinoceros, presented by Strollers Theatre. 

In a French provincial town, two friends are meeting in an outdoor café for a drink when suddenly a rhinoceros stampedes through the village square.

Naturally the friends abruptly stop talking. Shopkeepers and villagers gather around to gawk. But instead of alarm or distress at the intrusion of the enormous beast, all the crowd can muster is, “Well, of all things.” A slightly more eloquent version of, “huh,” this clichéd expression so encapsulates the public’s passive response to a clear threat, it occurs in the play 26 times.

This is the first of many instances when Berenger, a somewhat slovenly copyeditor at the local newspaper with a weakness for liquor, is the lone person in the play who responds with appropriate alarm. This disconnect, between seeing a dangerous and immoral disaster in the making and refusing to act to stop it, is the crux of Eugene Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros. Strollers Theatre presents a capable production of the absurdist drama at the Bartell Theatre through November 18.

Held up as a classic parable about the spread of Nazi-ism and fascism in Europe in the years between the World Wars, Ionesco wrote Rhinoceros based on his own experiences. He grew up half French-Jewish in Romania under the shadow of the violent, ultra-nationalist Iron Guard, and later in Nazi-occupied France. And in our current political climate where racist, anti-Semitic, ultra right wing groups are railing against the “other” and committing violent acts with little official rebuke, it’s painfully easy to see parallels.

As disturbing as the rampaging rhinos are, apathy to them is terrifying. Townspeople first dismiss the rhinos as an anomaly. Then they focus on minutia of whether the animals are Asian or African, one horned, or two, instead of forming a plan to do something to stop them. Some blame the reports of rhinos on fake news. Others refuse to get involved, unwilling to condemn the rhinos because “Who’s to say what’s evil?”

As the story grows steadily more bizarre, the audience clings to the clear-eyed Berenger, portrayed by Stacey Garbarski in a knock-out performance. The sheer energy and urgency she brings to the dizzying role propels the production forward and gives it focus. The center of this whirlwind of crazy, Berenger is the only person thinking clearly and it’s apparent that she is quickly outnumbered. As her fear ratchets up, so does ours.

One of the obvious production challenges for this play is figuring out how to portray herds of rhinos taking over the town. Director Katherine Johnson and her team solves this issue beautifully. Sound effects by Claire Kannapell are spot on—beginning as an ominous rumbling, then building to a frightening roar without sounding cartoony. And Abigail Graf crafted a dozen of the oversized animal heads, origami style, with design help from PaperPetShop.com. Complemented with plain black shirts and pants, the rhino masks are more than enough to evince the menacing creatures, frightening in both their numbers and their anonymous uniformity by the end of the play.

The clever set, created by Coleman, gives actors several playing areas and helps keep rather static scenes interesting. It is especially effective in the final moments, when the rhinos line up on the raised, curved platform, leaving Berenger alone in the “pit” below, as if she was a caged animal in a zoo.

Although the actors do a great job of picking up their cues, talking over one another in several simultaneous scenes and keeping the dialogue moving at a great clip, the play still feels at least half an hour too long. The silent rhino chorus going through some slow tai-chi choreography also held less power as an image the longer it was performed. But these are minor quibbles for a show that has been on my mind for a year. One year exactly.

Bravo to Strollers Theatre for bringing it to life onstage in Madison.