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A CurtainUp Review
A Theater of Derision Duo: Rhinoceros & View of the Dome

If you're wondering why we're reviewing the revival of Rhinoceros and the premiere of View of the Dome in one feature, consider these connections:
  • Both plays bear the mark of Theresa Rebeck--she adapted Rhinoceros for the new non-profit Valiant Company's first production; and wrote View of the Dome which recently opened at the New York Theater Workshop.
  • Rhinoceros is a classic example of the Theater of the Absurd pioneered by its author, Eugene Ionesco who preferred the term Theater of Derision for this method of examining social institutions and attitudes through an exaggerated lens. View of the Dome shows strong traces of Ionesco's influence both in its shift from realism to absurdity and its pessimistic view of the human condition
  • Both plays resort to sly touches inserted by Rebeck--in Rhinocerosan allusion to Ionesco's work; in Dome to Rebeck's work as a tv and movie writer, with a specific plug for the movie Harriet the Spy.
  • Both benefit from a larger cast than usually found in Off-Broadway productions--Rhinoceros has a cast of 9; Dome has 7, playing more than 20 characters.
  • Finally, both provide food for thought, entertainment and excellent performances but are in the final analysis flawed--Rhinoceros in its interpretation of Ionesco's complex characters and dark mood, and Dome in its initial failure to develop characters with any complexities to draw out.

    The above comparisons came to mind as a result of seeing these two plays back to back. That's not to say that you have to see both to get something out of either. Ionesco's play is a classic of its kind and so should be viewed as to its relevance, durability and current production values. Rebeck's play is worth seeing as an example of the work of a prolific living playwright who knows her way around other media--television and cinema--as well as the stage. This much said, let's look at this duo of derision, one at a time.

    Rhinoceros was Eugene Ionesco's dramatic response to the rise of Facism. By not naming a country or a cause, a specific group of aggressors, collaborators or victims, his examination of the difficulty of maintaining one's individuality in the face of overwhelming evil and mass hysteria became timeless. The atrocities in Bosnia and the growth of the religious right make this a play whose time for revival is always ripe, so that the Valiant Theater Company is to be commended for using it to launch itself on the Off-Broadway horizon.

    The current adaption leaves the play basically intact. The cast is generally very solid, especially Zach Grenier as John (the part that won Zero Mostel a Tony). Two scenes in particularly are worth the price of admission. Both are dominated by Grenier. The first is the counterpoint-like double dialogue in the town square; the second takes place in John's bedroom with him metamorphosing into a rhinoceros--complete with color-turning skin and erupting horn.

    Unfortunately the "now" touches that have been added--the rap music background, a waitress on roller blades, and the culturally current allusions--take away a measure of the original's genuine atmosphere of impending evil. Another negative is Peter Jacobson's interpretation of Ionesco's alter-ego, the determined individualist. His Berenger is more a Woody Allen sort of nebbish than a weak but desperate and complex man.

    The play's being overly drawn out is not particular to this production. Instead it's a case of a short story, which is what this was at the very beginning, being made into a three-acter when two acts would have been enough. If memory serves me, this was a complaint voiced even about the Broadway production many years ago.

    View of the Dome
    In View of the Dome we again have one individual pitted against a dominant group with notably flabby moral muscle. The group under this playwright's lens is shown very clearly rather than as a unique metaphoric image: corrupt, power hungry political movers and shakers; easily corruptible do-gooders; and the end-justifies-the-means religious right wingers. The one individualist in this sorry lot is a young woman lawyer whose ideals are rattled by a misunderstanding that is blown out of all proportion. The evil is neither unseen or mysterious but centers on the familiar stereotypes that for many have become more real than fictional. View of the Dome's cast of moral bankrupts is outstanding, with six out of seven handling multiple roles with great panache. Michael Mayer, the director, skillfully moves them around the very wide stage and Neil Patel's set is as witty as it is serviceable, with a revolving door that fills all the functions of the minimum of four doors needed for a good farce. The absurdly farcial scenes, by the way, are hilarious and one of the play's major assets.

    This leaves the previously mentioned flaw which again resides in the main character. Emma, like Berenger, is a somewhat less than convincing idealist. She is not so much an example of wounded idealism than of consistently poor people judgment. To cite chapter and verse: She chooses an alcoholic as a boyfriend, a non-listener as a girl friend, hitches her idealism to a professor who was probably more vain than virtuous to begin with, has an affair with a boorish senator who would be shunned by most smart women. When she gets mad enough to fight, Emma seeks help from an extremist group. Still, while she's not the strong and savvy heroine this smart and sassy play deserves, as played by Julia Gibson, she's funny and attractive--like the show itself.

    Let's hope that the handsome but small New York Theatre Workshop, currently much touted as the incubator for Rent, will keep producing more original works.

    View of The Dome
    Theresa Rebeck, Playwright
    Michael Mayer, Director
    Cast: Jim Abele, Patrick Breen, Candy Buckley, Tom Riis Farrell,Julia Gibson, Dion Graham,Richard Poe
    Neil Patel, Set Designer
    Michael Krass, Costume Designer
    Frances Aronson, Lighting Designer
    Darron L. West, Sound Designer
    New York Theatre Workshop, from September 13, 1996 for 38 performances.
    Eugene Ionesco, Playwright --Theresa Rebeck, adapter
    Michael Murray, Director
    Cast: Fred Burrell, Heather Carnduff, Burt Edwards, Michael Etheridge, David Green, Zach Grenier,J.R. Horne, Peter Jacobson, Debbie Lamedman, Cortez Nance Jr., Erin J. O'Brien, Geoffrey Owens, Elizabeth Van Dyke
    Karl Eigsti, Set Designer
    Ted Simpson, Set Designer
    Amela Baksic, Costume Designer
    Neil Peter Jampolis, Lighting Designer
    Aural Fixation, Sound Designer
    Theater Four, 424 West 55th Street
    from 10/02/96 to 10/20/96 (22 performances.
    Reviewed by Elyse Sommer

    The Broadway Theatre Archive

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