Rhinoceros Offers an Absurd Take on ‘Trump People’

THE LAST TIME TAMARIE COOPER, Catastrophic Theatre’s associate director, directed Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, it was 2003, and it was for another company. Fourteen years on, she’s getting ready to open the show this week, and it’s a whole different experience.

“The more life we live, the more we bring to the table,” she says about re-visiting the play. “As a director, I just have more insight and awareness for this now.” She’s also more aware of how she wanted to pace the show, picking it up a notch to move the action along.

Catastrophic has made its mark on Houston over the last decade by pushing the envelope, and mounting plays that echo the company’s mission to showcase the edgy and avant-garde. Within that framework, Cooper says the group has always presented an avant-garde classic each season, so this 1959 staple is well in the company’s wheelhouse.

Ionesco wrote the play as a response to the creeping fascism and Nazism he witnessed before, during and after World War II. It’s the story of a town whose citizens slowly turn into rhinoceroses one by one. The only person who appears to be immune to this strange metamorphosis is Berenger, whose resistance to and obsession for the creatures puts him at odds with his fellow townsmen. Central to the play’s themes is how one stands apart or how one eventually gives in to the herd. Sound familiar?

“Jason [Nodler, Catastophic’s artistic director] had been thinking about doing the play for a while,” says Cooper. “But after last year’s election, we all felt like, well, we need to do Rhinoceros now, although I’d argue the play seems fairly timeless.”

Joel Sandel, who is making his Catastropic acting debut, agrees. He sees the characters turning into rhinoceroses as what he calls “Trump people.”

“And how many of us have watched people we’ve known our whole lives support something we can’t fathom?” he asks rhetorically. “And my job in the play is to be reasonable as Berenger becomes more obsessed, to put across the idea that people can do what they like, that we can try to hold onto as much as we can.”

All of that might sound like a super heavy night of politics, but both Cooper and Sandel say the play is very funny.

“Kyle Sturdivant cracks me up with his manic energy,” says Sandel. “I can’t even describe it. But parts of this show are just like a 1940s screwball comedy.”

“This play is such a great vehicle for an actor,” agrees Cooper. “And even though the subject matter is heavy, the use of humor is effective and makes it approachable. And I hope our work makes people feel something.”

Thru Dec. 10. Tickets pay-what-you can ($35 suggested). MATCH, 3400 Main St. 713-521-4533. More info and tickets at matchouston.org.