ONSTAGE If you think it unlikely that an absurdist comedy about raging rhinoceroses in a small French town could resonate deeply with the concerns of today’s audiences, you would definitely have reason on your side.

So when ACT artistic director Pam MacKinnon chose Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros to (through June 23) close her first season, some may have thought she was rolling the dice. But a superb cast under the imaginative direction of veteran theater artist Frank Galati brings this 1959 absurdist drama right into the present.

On a Sunday morning, two friends meet for drinks at a small outdoor cafe. Gene (Matt DeCaro) impeccably dressed and somewhat supercilious, berates his coworker Berenger (David Breitbarth, whose facial features are as expressive as his lines) for his slovenly demeanor and addiction to drink, accusing him of lacking propriety and civility. It’s a typical enough argument, but Gene’s cutting critique carries an undercurrent that, as the play unfolds, brings a strong irony to this opening scene.

Their morning cognac is interrupted by a loud roaring, clatter, and clouds of dust. It seems a rhinoceros is rampaging through the town. Berenger thinks of all kinds of reasons for this spectacle—it escaped from the zoo, it comes from a traveling circus—which Gene dismisses out of hand. In one of Ionesco’s many meta-theater jokes, Gene admonishes Berenger, “Don’t dramatize the situation.”

Berenger (David Breitbarth) looks at Gene (Matt DeCaro) as if he is acting like a strange animal in Eugène Ionesco’s ‘Rhinoceros’. Photo by Kevin Berne

Other townspeople and coworkers are skeptical about the rhino sighting, even when reading about its trampling a beloved pet in the “Dead Cats” column of the local paper. At his law office, only Berenger and the object of his (and many others’) affection, Daisy (played by the remarkable Rona Figueroa) insist that there was an actual rhinoceros in the town square—all the others are skeptical and dismissive.

The first to change her mind is Mrs. Boeuf (a hilarious Trish Mulholland), and that’s only because she realizes the rhinoceros who has chased her into the law office is actually her husband.

The others eventually can’t deny that there are rhinoceroses in the town. A whole destructive herd of them, in fact. They slowly come to the disturbing realization that the animals are their neighbors and coworkers who have sprouted horns in the middle of their forehead.

The cast of ‘Rhinoceros’ at ACT. Photo By Kevin Berne

As more and more people transform into pachyderms, those left behind begin to normalize the situation, wondering whether it isn’t so bad to become a rhino after all. They come up with all kinds of rationale. Daisy opines, for example, that everyone’s doing it: “People are changing into rhinoceroses. My cousin is a rhinoceros. Even celebrities, like Bridgette Bardot.” Mr. Dudard (Teddy Spencer) tells a distraught Berenger, “This is the situation and you have to accept it,” adding, “If you are going to criticize, it’s best to do it from the inside.”

This is the herd mentality writ large.

Director Galati, whose 60 years in the theater spans from Steppenwolf to Broadway, has pulled together an outstanding cast and creative team to stage this lively, side-splitting, and provocative performance.

Though he hesitates to draw analogies to today’s politics, Galati is quite clear that Ionesco was concerned about encroaching fascism when he wrote the play. In the program notes, Galati explains that he learned a lot about Ionesco’s thoughts by reading his journals and letters. “Ionesco writes about how he and his girlfriend had a circle of friends in Romania and France in the 1930s who became Nazis one by one. He couldn’t believe that intellectual men and women—smart people that he loved and admired—acquiesced. That they kept their mouths shut, they went along, they were complicit, they were criminal.

“Observing that terror moving through communities like a contagion was the kernel of the idea that led to Rhinoceros,” Galati states.

Daisy (Rona Figueroa) visits Berenger (David Breitbarth) in a dream, in Eugène Ionesco’s ‘Rhinoceros.’ Photo by Kevin Berne

Rhinoceros, originally written in French, was the first of Ionesco’s plays to be staged in the United States It is now considered, along with The Bald Soprano (currently playing at Cutting Ball Theater until June 16), to be among the best of his more than two dozen works.

The entire cast works together so crisply that their absurd situation becomes believable, even if metaphorically. Two performances, however, are real standouts. Figueroa, as Daisy, is making her ACT debut, but she is a veteran of the Broadway stage, including lead roles in Miss Saigon and Les Miserables in their original productions. Her rendition of “Je ne regrette rien,” as Mrs. Boeuf rides away on the back of her husband-turned-rhinoceros brought down the house.

The other is a tour de force by DeCaro as he goes through the transformation from pompous gentleman to slobbering beast. One minute he is an aging man with a potbelly in a silken bathrobe and the next, an angry, out-of-control wild animal whose skin is armor-like and turning green. His physical acting skill is simply mesmerizing.

And here is the irony. The same Gene who disparaged Berenger for his lack of civility is now charging at his friend with bestial rage, roaring and wrecking everything around him.

Will there be enough holdouts who resist joining the herd of rhinoceroses? If not, whither civilization? We can’t say Ionesco didn’t warn us.

“RHINOCEROS”
Through June 23
ACT Geary Theatre
Tickets and more info here.