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November 17, 2014 Published in Arts & Style, Other News

Rhinoceros

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By Laura Fries
alexandrianews.org

Cast of Rhinoceros (Photo: Venus Hylton)

Cast of Rhinoceros (Photo: Venus Hylton)

T. C. Williams High School's drama department should be quite proud of its production of Eugène Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros.” A rather obscure and difficult play, like its pachyderm namesake; it has some bumpy ugly parts, but ultimately conveys a certain beauty that shouldn’t be lost to the world. Ionesco’s’ play, part of the French Theater of the Absurd movement, is an ambitious project for any troupe, let alone a high school theater department. Not only does the genre sound difficult to perform, it conjures up notions of a beret filled  Saturday Night Live sketch or Monty Python’s Flying Circus members with outrageous accents shouting to “fetchez la vache” to taunt English marauders.

But just one look at the vestibule outside of T. C. Williams High School’s main auditorium and posters of productions pasts, audiences will know drama heads Leslie Jones and Hope Bachman-Miller  don’t shy away from difficult material. The cast of Rhinoceros not only aptly delivers a very difficult script—they totally get it; it’s a story that transcends its World War II themes of Communism and Nazism; it strikes a chord with modern audiences as it explores ideas of conformity and social responsibility. Seniors Eliza Malakoff and Angelica Irizarry, who serve as student director and stage manager, have a nice addition to their college resumes with this production. Their enthusiasm and attention to detail is evident throughout.

The story revolves around an otherwise sleepy French town whose residents are slowly turning into Rhinoceroses. At first, it seems like a strange anomaly—perhaps a lone animal escaped from a zoo. But as more and more of the creatures are spotted through town, people begin to worry—at first about the least important things. Are they one or two horned rhinos? The majority of the townspeople are unable to act, waiting for others to take control of the situation. “What shall we do,” they cry. Others, such as Berenger (Akobi Hylton), Dudard (Peter Eckel) and Botard (Aaron Higgins) try to dissect, logically and morally, why this is happening.

Andrew Pickup and Akobi Hylton (Photo: Venus Hylton)

Andrew Pickup and Akobi Hylton (Photo: Venus Hylton)

The young cast does a great job with script, which has a difficult cadence and requires precise timing. Andrew Pickup as Jean has a particularly physically demanding scene where he transforms and he delivers a very powerful performance. Hylton carries a good deal of the play, and his emotional core builds in direct correlation to the raft of rhinos. Eckel is brings a nice touch of whimsy to the play while Shanna Gerlach as Daisy brings a great deal of heart.

The supporting cast of Rhinos should also be commended for the physicality of their roles, charging and galloping about the theater. They are at times creepy, funny and confounding. There’s even one Larson-esque scene where Rhinos prank call Berenger to taunt him. Still, Ionesco’s play could benefit from a healthy dose of editing to make it a tighter, timelier crowd pleaser. The fourth act seems far too long. The deceptively simplistic set is like a dreamy surrealist painting, with suspended doors and windows and easily moveable pieces to accommodate four acts. The artist (Michael Morris) constantly working on a ladder in the background, pinning rhinos to the wall, is oddly reminiscent of election night tallies. While the play isn’t overtly political, it is a political and social allegory. What, if anything, influences group thinking? What does it take to sway popular opinion? Which is stronger, fear or love? Pretty heady stuff for high school. Then again, it’s great to see our kids thinking—and acting—outside of the box.

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