By now, resistors know the drill. Call your senators. Call your representatives. Vote in your primaries. March in your protests. And above all, try not to turn into an odd-toed ungulate.
That’s the threat afflicting the citizens of Eugène Ionesco’s 1959 absurdist allegory, “Rhinoceros,” enjoying its Yiddish premiere courtesy of New Yiddish Rep, which recently produced “The God of Vengeance.” Somewhere in France, people are transforming into herds of rhinoceroses and undertaking some pretty unorthodox urban renewal. Even though Moshe Yassur’s production has a hazy, haphazard feel, in times like ours, a story about ordinary people seduced by fascist overtures seems too, well, on the nose.
Berenger (Luzer Twersky), a bleary newspaperman, is nursing a hangover and bleating about the meaninglessness of life when his morning pastis is interrupted by a rampaging beast. Soon more and more of his friends and co-workers are succumbing. First they spout clichés, then skin hardens and morals calcify. Suddenly there’s an upsurge of keratin and before you know it, a crash of rhinoceroses.
The play, originally written in French, is performed in Yiddish, in a new translation by Eli Rosen, who also plays Jean, an early casualty. There are English supertitles, projected onto walls behind the characters, which means that in most scenes non-Yiddish speakers risk eyestrain from trying to watch the actors and read the speeches.
But one of the pleasures of the production is hearing the smattering of words that have made their way into English — schmutz, tsoris, shande — and those that are more or less the same in French, English and Yiddish — orgy, epidemic. The Yiddish for rhinoceros is the rather literal nozhorn, which makes up in oomph what it lacks in syllables.
Ionesco had seen the rise of fascism in his native Romania and it’s not much of a leap to make a connection between adopting fascist ideology and becoming an actual beast. (Rhinoceroses, like Hitler, are vegetarians. Discuss.) The production makes this explicit toward the end when Botard (Alec Leyzer Burko), Berenger’s colleague, looks out at the herds below and begins to envy their power. Then he starts goose-stepping around the room and gives a heil as he departs.
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