There’s a funny yet gripping moment in Pointless Theatre’s imperfectly calibrated “Rhinoceros” when a woman recognizes her husband, who has been transformed into one of the namesake herbivores. The beast is nearby — offstage, to us — and when Mrs. Boeuf hears his trumpeting, she rushes in his direction and identifies him with a cry.
At its best, director Frank Labovitz’s staging of French dramatist Eugène Ionesco’s 1959 absurdist classic makes us experience a comparable shock of connection and recognition. In our hyperpartisan era, the play’s reflections on conformism, groupthink and ideological contagion pack a wallop like a 5,000-pound pachyderm’s stomp. (The Romanian-born Ionesco is said to have written “Rhinoceros” as a response to the spread of fascism in the early 20th century.) And Labovitz’s original translation of the script shows how rich the play is in comedy, suspense and cathartic existential terror.
Unfortunately, the performances are uneven, and Labovitz has sanctioned acting choices that can be unadvisedly clowning and hammy. Also problematic are bursts of stylized movement that look self-conscious and feel distracting: an alarmed character suddenly huddling precariously on the back of a chaise, for instance. Pointless favors visual boldness, but here a more understated and even (to the extent possible) naturalistic approach might have thrown the story’s humor and nightmarishness into greater relief, and thus better served the play.
Providing the throughline is Berenger (Mary Myers), an underachiever in a small town who pines after his acquaintance Daisy (Momo Nakamura) and tolerates merciless needling by his friend Jean (Stephen Murray). When townspeople inexplicably begin turning into rhinos, Berenger finds his fellow human survivors reacting in dumbfounding ways, from denial to calm acceptance to envy.
Myers paints Berenger in overemphatic strokes, employing a too-fidgety physicality and expressions that verge on mugging. Murray does better by Jean, exuding apt superciliousness even in posture and mannerism. Melissa Carter ably channels Mrs. Boeuf, and Nicholas Temple is poised and nuanced as Berenger’s co-worker Dudard. In the most enjoyable performance, Joshua Williams is hilarious as Papillion, an office manager who fixates on paperwork and productivity as bipeds turn into quadrupeds right and left.
Pointless is known for its puppetry, and this production does not disappoint, with three-dimensional and shadow puppets popping up eerily — a flavorful contrast to the deliberately quotidian settings, such as a picturesque town square. (Jess Rassp is puppet designer, and James Raymond, scenic designer.) Further supporting the tale’s unsettling twists is AJ Johnson’s sound design, with its large-mammal stampeding and grunting noises.
Despite its flaws, the Pointless production is a welcome reminder of this classic play’s zest and power. Especially at a time of polarized politics and entrenched suspicion, one wonders why herds of “Rhinoceros” aren’t charging across our stages.
Rhinoceros by Eugène Ionesco. Translated and directed by Frank Labovitz; lighting design, Hailey Laroe; costumes, Kitt Crescenzo; composer, Tommy Sherrod. With Lee Gerstenhaber, Nick Martin, Niusha Nawab and Madeline Key. 2 hours 15 minutes. $39. Through April 24 at Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th St. NW. pointlesstheatre.com.