Berenger (David Breitbarth) watches a rhinoceros in Eugène Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros,” presented by American Conservatory Theater. (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

ACT’s ‘Rhinoceros’ director doesn’t strive for creature comforts

Frank Galati calls Ionesco classic ‘a philosophical romp’

The premise of theater of the absurd ­— abandoning conventional dramatic form to highlight the futility of human struggle in a senseless world — might feel discomfiting to the casual theatergoer, but that’s OK with Frank Galati, who is directing the absurdist classic “Rhinoceros” at American Conservatory Theater.

“I don’t know that we’re always happy when we’re comfortable in the theater,” he suggests. “We go to the theater in part to rehearse crises in our own lives.”

He sees the play by European author Eugene Ionesco as “a philosophical romp. It has a dexterity of mind, which is really thrilling.”

First produced in 1959, the plot suggests that a plague erupting in a small town in France is ultimately going to transform the entire population into beasts.

“What comedy,” Galati wonders, “is not based on the absurd? When you think about the skits that we really relish on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ the outrageous and the exaggerated are kind of the norm.”

It’s certainly different terrain from his last outing at ACT. directing the musical “1776.”

“Yes,” he agrees. “However, they’re both history plays. One is a chronicle of the founding fathers and mothers and ‘Rhinoceros’ is a history play in the sense it was born out of the crucible of European history, the calamity of World War II.”

Ionesco, Romanian by birth, lived most of his life in France, where he witnessed the rise of fascism and the Nazi regime. Most analysts see “Rhinoceros” as autobiographical and a reaction to the mob mentality and conformist collaboration he observed.

The play opened on Broadway in 1961 with Anne Jackson, Jean Stapleton, Eli Wallach as the kind-hearted Berenger and a Tony-winning turn by Zero Mostel as the tart intellectual John. Galati did not see that production but notes, Mostel’s milestone performance “is recorded in the film version with Gene Wilder.”

Galati considers this production an adaptation. “The estate gave us permission to reconfigure the play, to make cuts and changes in the text to reflect a less European and less antiquated kind of language,” he shares. “I think we’ve pruned the play so that it has a kind of efficiency.”

“There’s a kind of brutality in the play,” he says. “It explores these dark aspects of the human character at the same time it dismantles received notions of theatricality. It’s what art can do, which is to illuminate and to feel for and into the ‘other’ and the experience that we as human beings share.”

IF YOU GO

Rhinoceros

Presented by American Conservatory Theater

Where: Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursday-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes June 23

Tickets: $15 to $110

Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org

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