Watching theater after the 2016 election feels a lot like going to therapy for liberals. Onstage, usually through a play written 50 or 100 years ago, artists have spent the past year talking through their feelings about living in a country that has elected Donald Trump as president and asking familiar questions.
How did this happen?
Where are we headed?
Should I accept the world for what it is, or keep my anger boiling?
These queries have been turned into plays several times in Houston, and yet again, and again.
Consider one of the main conflicts in Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros,” which sees a marvelously pointed, yet subtly open-ended, production by the Catastrophic Theatre through Dec. 10 at MATCH. One man, Berenger, is agitated to the point of a nervous breakdown about the recent phenomenon of people turning into rhinoceroses. Berenger’s co-worker, Dudard, chooses to be less emotionally involved.
Dudard: “I think you’re right, to a certain extent, to have some reaction. But you go too far. You’ve no sense of humor, that’s your trouble, none at all. You just learn to be more detached, and try and see the funny side of things.”
Berenger: “I feel responsible for everything that happens. I feel involved, I just can’t be indifferent.”
Dudard: “Judge not lest ye be judged. If you start worrying about everything that happens, you’d never be able to go on living.”
Berenger: “If only it had happened somewhere else, in some other country … But when you’re involved yourself, when you suddenly find yourself against the brutal facts, you can’t help but feeling directly connected – the shock is too violent for you to stay cool and detached. I’m frankly surprised, I’m very surprised. I can’t get over it.”
Written originally as a reflection on the rise of fascism that led to World War II, the exchange encapsulates not only the split personality of the modern liberal but also the plight of politically driven art: Given a choice between emotion and detachment, which is the correct response?
In the Catastrophic’s latest production, Kyle Sturdivant offers one of the best physical performances of the year as a man turning into a rhinoceros. While his take on an aggressive, babylike chimpanzee in the Catastrophic’s “Trevor” was commanding, his role here takes on a more uncanny presence as both man and animal, both rational being and primal beast. His green and gray skin, his protruding horn, his changing voice – Sturdivant, stomping on the stage like a, well, you know, recalls both method acting and mime.
The effect is terrifying and intoxicating.
But even the Catastrophic Theatre, supposedly the town’s best Absurdists, cannot fix the parts of Ionesco’s play that haven’t aged well. The talk about Asiatic rhinoceros and Asiatic people remains inelegant and distracting, as does Ionesco’s clear weakness with writing roles for women. Jeanne Harris has the thankless role of the blonde secretary Daisy, and however much she and the cast try to redeem Daisy, the character’s hackneyed domestic narrative with Berenger in the third act mutes the play’s political impact.
Rather tamper with classic text, though, director Tamarie Cooper highlights the themes that sing to a modern audience. We never see an image of a rhinoceros. Instead, we see the rhinoceros in Berenger’s shaking and moaning. He cannot handle the way things are going. George Parker, as Berenger, takes a cue from Sturdivant in expressing Ionesco’s dialogue with his body. I see my prideful, angry friends, who cannot fathom why members of their family voted for Trump and are afraid to speak to them about it, in Parker’s Berenger.
Watching classic political art after an outsider has upended our sense of the status quo, after all, is like listening to music about heartbreak after your first break up – all the same words start to make sense in a different way. “Rhinoceros” resonates not because it’s about fascism but because it’s about regular people figuring out how to cope with a situation in which the perceived rules no longer apply.
To have strong morals and conscious of the world at the same time, Parker’s performance suggests, is to be in a bit of a sorry state. How lonely and prideful it is to feel superior to rhinoceroses when everyone is turning into one. The production leads us toward the dangerous alternative. Maybe it’s better, we consider, to be Dudard.
Presented by Catastrophic Theatre
When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, through Dec. 10
Where: MATCH, 3400 Main St
Information: Pay what you can, with a suggested donation of $35; 713-521-4533, catastrophictheatre.com