What makes me the most glad to have seen the Théâtre de la Ville revival of Ionesco’s RHINOCEROS were the faces of the rhinoceri hovering in the air, with their beautiful sad eyes, sweet and brutish at the same time, animal yet with a germ of sympathy for the human.

In the possible world of the play they were, of course, human at one time. This story of a small town whose citizens turn one by one into pachyderms is a fairly obvious satire of political and cultural conformity, written in 1959 in a world all too aware of the totalitarianisms of right and left, to say nothing of the creeping hegemonies of corporatism and bureaucracy. Of the village’s inhabitants, only Bérenger, the Everyman who dares to be late to work, evades the transformation.

RHINOCEROS was a seminal work in what came to be called the Theatre of the Absurd, and Ionesco’s usual take on language, identity and the rules of logic are on full display, with the syllogistic dialogue and persistent positing of logical fallacy in the form of valid argument. Director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota’s staging of the first act is an obvious evocation of The Chairs, an even more absurdist exercise from the same writer. Some of this, it must be said, feels dated, even in this atmospherically rich production, which is bare bones and archetypal in the manner of a reconsidered classic.

But then the last act comes along, and the acting becomes beautifully intimate; then there are three, then two, then one who remain human; then there are the gorgeous faces of the brutes. And I at least was plunged into an experience deeper than the absurdities of language or the politics of conformity, into a pool of affinity between man and beast, instinct and personhood, the nature of consciousness and moral value confined to neither the human nor the animal, but shared by both. Bérenger holds out to the end, but I think I would have opted for those sweet mournful eyes, nodding in the dark.

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