Contributing Critic - New York
Written by Robert Siegel and directed by William Roudebush “Stranger than a Rhino”, based on Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” takes its audience on an absurdist meta-textual dive into the hysterical fears of Americans in the wake of 911 and what that’s meant for Muslim Americans ever since. Our protagonist, Bruce (Jeremy Lister) is forced to re-evaluate his perception of the events after 911 when the avant-garde director Delia (Barbara Matovu) enlists him as her leading man in her reinterpretation of Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros”. Rehearsals and reality blend together while tension amongst castmates rise as we plunge deeper into an absurd post 911 nightmare that both mirrors Ionesco’s work but manages to maintain its own identity.
For the uninitiated Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” is an absurdist allegory for the rise of fascism in Europe. It explores themes of conformity, culture, logic responsibility and the dangers of mob mentality. While Robert Siegel’s “Stranger than a Rhino” makes no claims to being an adaptation of “Rhinoceros” it does make use of Ionesco’s narrative as a tool to play on audience expectations. Where “Rhinoceros” is an anti-fascist fable with the rhinoceros being a metaphor for fascism. At face value Siegel’s Rhinoceros is literally Muslims. As one can imagine this is initially off putting for anyone familiar with its predecessor. But if you stick with it you’ll find that Siegel’s “Stranger than a Rhino” redeems itself by toying with its protagonist’s perspective forcing the audience to question who the rhinoceros is, and more importantly am I the rhinoceros. Where Ionesco was seeking to show his audience how the dangers of mass movements and an inherent need to conform can result in political atrocities that border on the absurd Siegel seeks to make his audience question their own perspectives of the events of 911 as well as just their perspective of the world around them. This is accomplished by drawing direct parallels between Islamic extremism and the actions of Islamophobic Americans, whilst still using Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” as a framing device resulting in a brilliant bait and switch that both inverts its predecessor and shatters the audience’s expectations.
However, this piece is not without its flaws. One of the issues I take with “Stranger than a Rhino” is a structural one. Without revealing too much I’ll just say that Siegel’s writing pushes the boundaries of political correctness multiple times and has sequences bordering on xenophobic, though it is important to note this is not without purpose. Once the piece’s intent is finally revealed all is forgiven but, in my opinion, it takes too long to reveal its intent. While an interesting narrative experiment, I believe allowing the audience to sit in the revelation that Siegel’s ending provides for a bit longer would have greatly benefitted the piece thematically. Additionally, there is something to be said about telling a story meant to comment on the Muslim experience in Post 911 America and only have one actor from that group onstage but I’m also not from that group so my opinion on that only holds so much weight. But, once again not to reveal too much, Siegel manages to make his morally questionable characters empathetic while still holding them accountable for their actions, thankfully the “redeemed racist” trope is nowhere to be seen in this piece.
On a technical level “Stranger than a Rhino” is an entertaining, challenging piece of theatre held together by a strong cast and intricate direction. Jeremy Lister gives a stellar performance as Bruce managing to maintain a sense of reality and sincerity amongst the absurdity of his world. While Barbara Matovu approaches Delia, the director of this play within a play, a certain regality and refinement while never seeming unapproachable. Vick Krishna plays Wasseem as well as every Muslim character within the show creates a palpable tension with Lister. And William Roudebush’s direction weaves his characters in and out of various complex environments using only tables and chairs as well as utilizing every inch of the space to bring the audience closer in on the experience. But due to the controversial nature of the piece whether the piece is brilliant or offensive hinges entirely on audience interpretation.
Now keep in mind due to its absurdist roots and sensitive subject matter this is not for everyone. While thought-provoking “Stranger than a Rhino” is sure to polarize audience members on either side of the political spectrum with what at first glance is a blunt approach to what anyone would consider incredibly challenging subject matter. But know that the piece does redeem itself in the last five minutes and for the audience member that goes in genuinely assuming no ill-intent it is sure to provoke stimulating conversations on the train ride home.
“Stranger Than A Rhino” premiered at NYC Fringe Festival October 12-20, 2018 (5 Performances)
Friday, October 12 @ 5:15 p.m.
Sunday, October 14 @ 9:30 p.m.
Wednesday, October 17 @ 9:30 p.m.
Friday, October 19 @ 4:45 p.m.
Saturday, October 20 @ 7:30 p.m.