Eugene Ionesco’s now-classic avant-garde play Rhinoceros is coming to the Catastrophic Theatre (of course) with its story of a small French village whose people, one by one, are turning into rhinoceroses. Ionesco wrote it in response to his own experience with the rise of fascism and Nazism; it’s not hard to see the connection as his characters adopt a herd mentality, unthinkingly repeat meaningless phrases and trample on the rights of others.
The lone exception, more antihero than hero, is the lazy drunkard Bérenger, who really doesn’t fit into anyone else’s mindset.
“I think that Ionesco felt that he represented a truer version of humanity versus what we might see as more typical heroic sort of a character,” says actor/director Tamarie Cooper, who is directing.
“He often says in the play, ‘I just can’t get used to it. I can’t get used to life. I don’t know what my argument is against the rhinoceroses; I just feel that something is wrong,’" she says. "For him, those feelings of being a human on this planet I think truly represented to him what it is to be absurd. Trying to make it through life as a feeling human and how we process the world around us is absurd. He can’t really fit into society. He is the true individual struggling just to make it through every day. “
In keeping with that absurdity that despite the fact the discussion is about deeply philosophical themes, this isn’t a dryly painful theater experience, Cooper says.
“There’s a tremendous amount of humor in this play. It is a comedy. I think it’s always the most fun to take on the darkest things with a dose of humor," says Cooper adding that she’s directing at a fast pace with the motto: “Keep it moving.”
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Last performed by Infernal Bridegroom Productions in 2003, the play retains one member of its original Houston cast: Kyle Sturdivant. “Always in our programming we do like to present an avant-garde classic if we can. That’s sort of what we cut our teeth on in the early days,” Cooper says. “After the election last year, we suddenly felt that the timeliness of this play was also very timely.”
A lot will be left up to the audience’s imagination as regards actors turning into rhinoceroses, says Cooper, who decided not to use masks or other add-ons to explain the transformations.
Although Ionesco wrote this play in direct response to his own pre- and World War II experiences, Cooper says people shouldn’t see this as just a play against fascism. “This is a bigger statement. It’s more reflective of the collective versus the individual and the danger in any sort of mass ideology. Or the mob mentality versus humanity.
Performances are scheduled for November 17 through December 10 at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sundays at The MATCH, 3400 Main. For information, call 713-521-4533 or visit catastrophictheatre.com or matchhouston.org. $35 suggested ticket price or pay what you can.