Rhinoceros, Hypocrites, at the Athenaeum Theatre. Eugene Ionesco was not only a master absurdist but a trickster who delighted in baffling audiences and critics alike. Even his relatively simple works, like this 1959 play about a town whose citizens are mysteriously turning into rhinoceroses, resist interpretation. Some have compared the townspeople’s transformation into beasts to the spread of fascism. Others have read the play as an exercise in surreal comedy, a bitter send-up of the shallowness of contemporary life, and even one long temper tantrum lashing out at the expectations of middle-class audiences.

The fact is, Rhinoceros is at once comic and earnest, silly and serious, a political allegory and a parody of such didactic works, and only a director as adept at both light and dark themes as the Hypocrites’ Sean Graney has a hope of pulling it off. His secret: he’s not afraid to embrace Ionesco’s rich complexity. More important, Graney knows how to find actors with the range and skill to follow Ionesco wherever he takes them. (Kurt Ehrmann is especially good as an annoying bourgeois fussbudget who finds himself, during a rather routine conversation with the would-be hero–played superbly by Robert McLean–snorting and stamping and yearning to gallop free through the streets.) The result is a production as mind blasting as Ionesco’s script.