In Eugene Ionesco’s 1958 farce, Rhinoceros, a number of characters hear sweet music in the trumpeting of rhinos carousing on the streets of a provincial French town. Where we hear something resembling a seventh-grade kid learning to play a coronet, they hear Audra McDonald. Yet the trumpeting is only music to those in the throes of a mysterious transformation from human to pachyderm. One by one, the entire population grows horns and thick skins, and becomes destined to trample flowers, crush staircases and decimate the town square. The play — made more famous than it might otherwise have been by Eli Wallach and Zero Mostel on Broadway — is among the seminal works in the Theater of the Absurd, a movement fomented in the trenches of World War I and seasoned by the nuclear explosions over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Luigi Pirandello and Harold Pinter are the Theater of the Absurd’s original four horsemen of the apocalypse, pouncing on both logicians and the clergy like literary gang rapists, exposing the lethal brutality underlying human relations in general, and polite society in particular. Their plays are usually done as some kind of clown show with human puppets blathering non sequiturs. Ionesco lifted entire passages of dialogue from a foreign language primer. Like in Dada, it’s supposed to be as nuts as life and death itself.

As the Cold War was thawing, I was taught in university that the Theater of the Absurd was dead, an antique curiosity, as though our fruitful existence was now secured for the indefinite future. Thank goodness, they said, that in the theater, we could go back to comparatively comfortable dramas of family dysfunction, like those written by Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson. It’s not God who’s dead, they argued, it’s Chicken Little. Of course that was before global warming.

So here we are again, with the entire Middle East nuking up, with the icecaps melting and Chicken Little center stage. The prospect of our extinction as a species doesn’t even seem shocking anymore. Hamlet summed up that reckoning with mortality in his oft-quoted remark about “a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.”

It’s widely believed that Ionesco’s rhinos are stand-ins for the Nazis. Yet if, in Rhinoceros, we’re supposed to be watching the painful process of political and spiritual capitulation to the brutes, there’s no stage direction calling for a swastika on the set, nor does director Frederíque Michel, in this current staging of Rhinoceros at Santa Monica’s City Garage, play the fascist card in any overt way. We certainly don’t see any rhinos waiting in line at Starbucks as part of some critique of our corporate-consumer theology — the kind of critique this theater has woven into its adaptations of texts by Heiner Müller.

Rather, Michel serves up an ensemble of marionettes attired for the late ’50s (costumes by Josephine Poinsot), sitting and crossing their legs in unison, sometimes snorting involuntarily, and then stopping to gaze out for a moment beyond their insulated worlds of grocery shops and dime-store novels to see a beast thunder across their horizon, accompanied by a low rumble and snare drums (sound design by Paul M. Rubenstein). Instead of actually seeing the rhino, we observe the witnesses’ expressions of amazement before they return to their lives, bickering over whether the animal had one horn or two. A bow-tied Logician (Justin Davanzo) helps them make further sense of their tiny world by reasoning that since all cats die, and Socrates is dead, Socrates must have been a cat. In many ways it’s a pedantic little comedy, made more so by the actors’ supercilious emphasis on drones like Jean (Bo Roberts), who blusters out his moral superiority as though he has a target and the words “shoot me” painted onto his jacket. The play’s hero is the aimless, wine-toting Berenger (Troy Dunn), whose greatest virtues are his lack of punctuality and purpose. Dunn wanders through this dream in a completely different acting style. They’re doing a puppet show, while he’s playing cinéma vérité with matted hair and a three-day beard, looking like a cross between a young David Clennon and Mark Ruffalo. The contrast of style is strategic and effective, but would be more so were the town’s idiocy not painted in primary colors. Perhaps Michel respects the play too much, underscoring its patronizing, professorial qualities — which also may be exaggerated in Derek Prouse’s translation.

Yet Michel’s production captures something about the loss of what it means to be human. Whatever that is, we’re free to fill in. We see Roberts’ Jean suffering with a fever on a little bed. He strips off the sheets, and we see his skin now green, his voice growing hoarse. It was this transformation, as performed by Mostel, that electrified the Broadway stage. Roberts’ is more schematic than spontaneous, yet in that metamorphosis, you can feel the tug of our age: the mergers and market forces slowly diminishing the arts and other services that help people to be rather than just to buy. You can hear the howls of dissent growing softer, confined now to small pens, watched by police cameras and ignored by news cameras. You can feel cults of narcissism and celebrity rising as the cultural skin thickens, as publishing industries fall away, as any pretense to an intellectually open and diverse society lies on that bed, wheezing.

{mosimage}Designer Ralph Funicello provides a huge painted backdrop of Brueghel the Elder’s pre-Elizabethan painting Dulle Griet for Daniel Sullivan’s perfunctory staging of Hamlet at South Coast Repertory. Brueghel’s painted goblins of hell frame the action on an otherwise barren wooden platform stage, decorated with a throne or two. Hamlet, like Berenger, is out of joint with his time and with the world he occupies, only Hamlet has a purpose — vengeance — which comes to him in a vision as the ghost of his father. This is much like the trumpeting of the rhinos, the call of the dead, or of the Nazis, who were similarly fueled by revenge, and much of Europe signed on to their derangement. In Hamlet too we observe the steady metamorphosis of an entire population — the royalty of Elsinore — from humans into a herd of ghosts, propelled by lunacy to the grave and beyond it, if that looming Dulle Griet is supposed to mean anything. In Hamlet too they turn, one by one, Polonius (Dakin Matthews), Ophelia (Brooke Bloom), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Henri Lubatti and Jeff Marlow), Laertes (Graham Hamilton), Gertrude and Claudius (Linda Gehringer and Robert Foxworth), to our hero himself (Hamish Linklater), until whatever it means to be human, or simply to be, has been vanquished. This leaves Fortinbras (David DeSantos) and the Norwegians to take over. And that doesn’t look any more promising, given the grudge that motivated their arrival.

Dulle Griet — painted large over this production — offers the lure of a conceptually bold and potentially consequential Hamlet that the director resolutely ignores, in favor of the kind of generic, self-important, somewhat witty rendition that we see year in, year out. Foxworth and Gehringer make for a perfectly serviceable king and queen, Matthews’ windbag Polonius sparkles with clarity and humor, and as Hamlet, the slender, charismatic and, yes, often brooding Linklater moves with the understated grace of an actor. Given his au naturel method approach, it’s a deficit when understatement appears affected and overstatement overstated, sort of like a teen idol playing Hamlet. Some of Linklater’s speeches are gorgeously delivered, nonetheless. He’s allowed to express among the most eloquent ruminations and complaints ever written about what it means to be alive. Given the real prospect of human extinction, the play, like Rhinoceros, could and should resonate with a meaning that would make the Absurdists proud.

RHINOCEROS | By EUGENE IONESCO | Presented by CITY GARAGE, 1340½ Fourth St., Santa Monica | Through July 15 | (310) 319-9939 or www.citygarage.org

HAMLET | By WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE | Presented by SOUTH COAST REPERTORY, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa | Through July 1 | (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org

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