A scene from <i>Rhinoceros</i>
A scene from Rhinoceros
(© Jean-Louis Fernandez)
Any piece of theater in which one human after another turns into a thundering African mammal inherently requires as much theatricality as a director can lavish, and that's exactly what Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota abundantly brings to this welcome revival of Rhinoceros, Eugene Ionesco's 1959 allegory, now in a brief run at BAM Howard Gilman Opera House.

For this production, Demarcy-Mota precedes the play with actor Hugues Quester, round-shouldered and downtrodden, delivering lines from Ionesco's novel, Solitaire, about loss of belief in the future. It comes off as both a meaningful introduction to the renowned playwright's increasing despair and a preview of the play to come.

The central figure in Rhinoceros is Berenger (Serge Maggiani), who through three charged sequences watches everyone he knows — including good friend Jean (Quester) and longed-for girlfriend Daisy (Celine Carrere) — lose themselves while he struggles to retain his autonomy.

In the opening segment, when the first rhinoceros is spotted outside a café, Berenger and Jean are attempting to have a convivial drink while talking over Berenger's romantic interest in Daisy — who is being wooed by mutual friend Dudard (Philippe Demarle) —when the men are thrown about the place along with the other startled denizens.

In the second segment, a group of office workers — attired by Corinne Baudelot in matching blue suits, white shirts and red ties — perch on a raised platform that ramps up even higher when one of their number succumbs to rhinodom. Throughout Ionesco's fever dream, Demarcy-Mota never loses sight of the need for humor, and here the continuing sight gag of office workers in extremis keeps audiences giggling.

In the third segment, Berenger goes into high-grade alarm when Jean, who has been holding out from her seemingly inevitable fate, gives into the song of the intruders -- as does Daisy just after she and Berenger declare their love for each other.

When Ionesco wrote the short story from which he developed Rhinoceros, it didn't take much to understand he was responding to the kind of galloping fascism happening throughout Europe, particularly as it manifested itself in his Romanian homeland. Now, many decades later, the work's continuing pertinence can't be dismissed in any society threatened by repression.

Still, much of the credit belongs to these exceptional artists, including designer Yves Collet, whose sets provide eerie surroundings and whose atmospheric lighting increases the eeriness; the (uncredited) sound design provides that frightening suggestions of animals running wild in the streets; and, especially, the skill of Demarcy-Mota's 13-member troupe who make the work consistently vital.