The beasts among us

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Imagine if something really strange and disturbing started happening in your city or your country. Maybe it's a new brutal animal force or maybe it's a political party. At first no one takes it seriously, it's almost as if it's so absurd that it couldn't possibly be happening: a joke. This new force is destroying things you care about, it's threatening institutions, changing the tone of language, and it's spreading. It's taking over. People you used to recognize are no longer making sense. Truth is up for grabs. It's almost like a disease.

In one sense that's the plot for Eugene Ionesco's absurdist political play Rhinoceros

Written in 1959 as a response and warning to the fascism that was taking over Romania, Rhinoceros is one of those plays I've always struggled with. Conceptually, it's clever: a town is suddenly overrun by foreign beasts - rhinoceroses. At first no one can believe or even agree that it's happening. Communication seems to have broken down. Facts are up for grabs. Then people start turning into these animals until the beasts have taken over.

My challenge has always been two-fold: really viscerally accepting the conceit and believing the tone from the start of the play to the end.

For better or worse, our current political administration has taken care of my first challenge. Ionesco's play feels all too topical, his warning a little too prescient. The idea that beasts are taking over I buy.

I'd love to tell you that Pacific Resident Theatre's current production successfully tackled the tone of the play . . . but I can't. The challenge locked inside the form of the play is sorting out just what's funny in this absurdist comedy.

PRT's answer seems to be everything. The production at PRT can't really settle on the gravity of the world they're portraying. The play opens as if it's a sketch on some caricature of a French village. It's as if they are winking at it all and dismissing it for broad laughs - which they get ... but at a price.

The trouble is over the course of the play's two hours and 45 minutes, things get deadly serious. What started as an inconsequential day in the town square ends up as a struggle for humanity. That's a challenging arc to pull off and, as always, the solution to act five lives in act one. The humanity we need to care about in the last act are those simple town folks in the beginning. So if you mock them, as this production does, it's hard to care about them when they start growing horns.

What you end up with is a production that's only hinting at the power and tragedy in this play: indulging in cheap laughs at the expense of more complicated satire. Which is too bad, because now's the perfect time to hear Ionesco's warning that if we're not careful, we'll lose the things we care about most.

Rhinoceros plays at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice through September 10.

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with two intermissions.

Photo: Keith Stevenson and Kendrah McKay in Rhinoceros (Vitor Martins/Pacific Resident Theatre)