From left, Jomar Tagatac, Danny Scheie, David Breitbarth, Rona Figueroa and Teddy Spencer appear in American Conservatory Theater’s “Rhinoceros.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

ACT’s ‘Rhinoceros’ lively and timely

Ionesco’s absurdist classic relevant in 21st century

“I just can’t get used to life,” sighs Berenger, the central Everyman figure in Eugène Ionesco’s 1959 absurdist satire “Rhinoceros.”

Adjusting to life is immediately about to get a lot harder for the hapless, rumpled Berenger, played by David Breitbarth. A rhino suddenly appears, rampaging through town.

One by one, Berenger’s bellicose and pedantic best friend Gene (Matt DeCaro) and everybody else, from Berenger’s work mates to the villagers, find a bizarre way to cope. Berenger, it seems, is the lone holdout, determined to resist the changing world order.

This is American Conservatory Theater’s final show of the season. Translated from the French by Derek Prouse, the new adaptation of the comedy about the human urge to follow the masses helmed by nationally acclaimed director Frank Galati is based on his Asolo Repertory Theatre production in Florida. Two excellent principals from cast came West with the show.

Mysterious as “Rhinoceros” is, Galati’s version adds to the mystery. To take one example: Galati’s chosen theme song, Edith Piaf’s “Je Ne Regrette Rien,” is played throughout and also beautifully sung by Rona Figueroa as Daisy, the young woman Berenger loves. But why that song? Perhaps it’s meant to represent the blind urge to cast doubt aside and follow the herd.

Galati enhances the hilarity, too. Beasts roar, trumpet and fart in Joseph Cerqua’s amusing sound effects.

Visual effects by scenic and costume designer Robert Perdziola include a gigantic and particularly amusing emblematic rhinoceros.

In the funniest and perhaps most pointed scene, at the beginning of the second act of the short play, law-and-order Gene turns into a rhinoceros — but without any of the usual clumsy costume or makeup changes or added-on horn.

Instead, he becomes more weirdly animal-like, yet continually veering between rhino and man in ways that confuse Berenger without unduly alarming him.

“I think you’re passing through a moral crisis,” Berenger remarks. Nature seems like a better choice than morals, counters Gene. His transformation is insidious — and then suddenly he is no longer human at all.

This is a lively, crisp and buoyantly physical production, with smaller roles played by such wonderful local actors as Danny Scheie, Trish Mulholland, Jomar Tagatac, Lauren Spencer and others.

And the back-and-forth discussions and arguments among the characters — the conviction of some that the reports about rhinos on the loose are “fake news” — feel, as intended, uncomfortably relevant.

REVIEW

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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