NATIONAL CITY — One of the nagging questions after World War II was why fascism wasn't stopped before it led to horrible persecution and a devastating war.
One dark, satiric answer, was provided by Eugene Ionesco, in his play "Rhinoceros," being staged at the Lamb's Players Theatre through June 13.
In "Rhinoceros," a few people decide to turn themselves into rhinoceroses. At first most are horrified that they would want to become animals. Later, their decision has a snowball effect. Rhinoceroses, at least one character realizes, have certain advantages over humans. They are stronger and are unencumbered by human morality. It isn't long before the once-fringe movement takes over.
The play's message is hardly complicated. Substitute "Nazi" or "fascist" for rhinoceros and the pieces fit neatly.
But the Lamb's Players weren't content with this simple equivalence. Under Robert Smyth's direction, they have altered the 1959 play to suit a more modern situation. A good idea, but the results are mixed.
The players have set the play in an antiseptic, colorless world as if to say that the new oppression squeezing the human spirit is technology. It is a shame that a better case wasn't made for the idea.
At the heart of the play is Berenger, a man who doesn't fit in but would like to. He is slovenly, drinks too much and is invariably late to work. He is competing against a model employee for the affection of Daisy, a lovely fellow worker.
To win her, Berenger listens anxiously to the shallow advice of his friend Jean.
As Berenger cleans up his act to win his dream girl, people on all sides turn into rhinoceroses. When Jean also turns into a rhinoceros, the question becomes how far will Berenger go to fit in? Will he see beauty in the beasts and join the parade of stamping and snorting rhinos?
David Cochran Heath portrays Berenger with nervous charm. You want to like this character who wants to be liked so much. But the question of why Berenger doesn't fit in--whether it is his ambivalence or his physical inability--is never completely answered, even in the critical final scene.
Smyth's direction is imaginative and energetic, but he stumbles into fuzziness on why Berenger doesn't fit in. With the help of Mike Buckley's sets, from the computer-dominated workplace to the bloodless, high-tech white of Jean's and Berenger's apartments, Smyth creates a stylish picture of the encroaching effects of a technological environment, which makes it even more of a shame that he does not develop that theme more fully.
Buckley's design makes the actors stand out. Even the fruit, drinks, candy and blank newspapers are whited out around them. The contrast is heightened by the bold colors in Veronica Murphy Smith's costumes, which, like the sets, are in eerie harmony with Dave Thayer's stark lighting.
Other than Heath, the cast plays stereotyped characters but makes them sparkle. As Jean, James Pascarella has the juiciest role; how often does an actor get a chance to turn himself into a rhinoceros on stage? He goes at it with gusto but doesn't quite pull it off.
Stina Sundberg is a pert and pretty Daisy. The rest of the cast plays dual roles. The best among these is Kerry Cederberg, who shows that a waitress and a woman executive may have different styles but are sisters under the skin when it comes to being sassy.
The production, despite its flaws, is a provoking and laudable attempt to freshen a play that is well worth reviving. A little more focus might have made all the difference. "RHINOCEROS" By Eugene Ionesco. Director is Robert Smyth. Costumes by Veronica Murphy Smith. Sets by Mike Buckley. Sound and lighting by Dave Thayer. Stage manager is Mark Coterill. Choreography by Pamela Turner. With Kerry Cederberg, Rick Meads, James Pascarella, David Cochran Heath, Darlene Trent, Kurt Reichert and Stina Sundberg. At 8 p.m. Tuesday--Saturday with Saturday matinees at 2. At the Lamb's Players Theatre, 500 Plaza Blvd., National City.