Rhinoceros Thrillingly Sounds The Alarm Bell

Everything old is new again 
– Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager

The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history
– Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss
– The Who

Arianna Bermudez, Abraham Zeus Zapata, George Parker, Rebecca Randall, Kyle Sturdivant and Noel Bowers in Rhinoceros.
Arianna Bermudez, Abraham Zeus Zapata, George Parker, Rebecca Randall, Kyle Sturdivant and Noel Bowers in Rhinoceros.  Photo by Pin Lim.

It was these quotes and songs that rattled round and round in my brain during Catastrophic Theatre’s urgently funny and frightening production of Eugene Ionesco’s seminal absurdist satire, Rhinoceros. Written in 1959 as a distressed response to his own experience with the rise of fascism and Nazism, Rhinoceros today feels like an anti-history play. A play not about the past, but terrifyingly about our present. About the increasing mass influence of the extreme political right wing and the type of herd mentality that has us all posing for the same perfect selfie shot. This is a play about the subjugation of the individual to the many, and Ionesco has us nailed.

In a small French village, residents are turning into rhinoceroses. First just one or two, then quickly the “disease” spreads until there are few humans left to protest or defend themselves. Did these people want to change? Did they do it willingly? Or were they lured seductively by the idea of joining the pack, enamored at belonging to something bigger than their own lives?

Make no mistake; these rhinos (played without costume or masks) aren’t the cartoon cuties one sees in a Disney movie. These are guttural creatures with no language skills or interest in anything but their own collective animal instincts. Screw the niceties and rules of human life when one can finally tap into the power of beastly existence.

Some were good people. Why did they do it? More problematically, why are the remaining humans so blasé about the whole damn thing? Ionesco’s duality of disturbance and comedy is fast and furious and Director Tamarie Cooper’s deft and detailed ability to make us laugh and squirm at the same time, allows his work to thrillingly explode off the stage.

Frenemies engaged in quick-fire banter/derision, Berenger (a terrifically antsy and unsure George Parker) and persnickety Jean (Kyle Sturdivant in fine absurdist form) spot the first rhino as it trumpets and stampedes past the café where they sit. They scream and yell in astonishment, as do their café mates and other nearby townsfolk. “Well of all things”, they exclaim, quickly moving onto discussion over whether the animal was Asian or African. Why worry about the beast’s presence, even if it did run over a lady’s cat?

It’s all very amusing, this intellectual normalcy of the sudden presence of rhinos in their midst. Until it isn’t. More upsetting than the population’s transformation into rhinos is the reaction of the holdout humans. Name an excuse for not sounding the alarm or nipping the situation in the bud and Ionesco throws it at us. The rhinos aren’t real (fake news), it’s a temporary thing, they’ll come around (denial), stop worrying and learn to be more detached (head in sand), well there is nothing we can do anyway (resignation), hey, don’t the rhinos look happy? They don’t seem insane (acceptance).

As both an offspring of concentration camp survivors and a witness to the present political winds that blow, it’s this reaction and not the turncoats that disturb me most. Those that know better but choose to look or explain away.

One could spend pages and pages describing how Ionesco’s script mirrors our present situation. How his often very funny, wordy, rat a tat tat banter, argument-filled, philosophically-vexing dialogue speaks to our daily lives. But really, it’s a thing that should be seen and not read about.

After all, this is a superbly assembled cast working together in perfect absurdist harmony. Taking the lead as the antihero Berenger, a man who refuses to transform and the only one who seems truly terrified at what’s happening to the town, Parker gives us a man whose principles we respect, but whose own character we wince from. Drunk, disheveled, sycophantic at times, belligerent at others, Berenger is neither capable of stopping what’s happening nor does he really try and Parker breathes great life into his anxious energy.

As Jean, the first man we see transform, Sturdivant is both terrifying and deliciously funny as he snorts and stomps and throws his weight around. Last season, he won the Houston Theater Best Actor award for playing a chimp. Now he wows as a rhino. Can we all just agree that from this point on, should any play require the portrayal of an animal, Sturdivant is your man?

The rest of the eight cast members all offer up terrifically quirky characters as townsfolk, spouses of the recently transformed, office workers, bosses and love interests. Each one shines in sparkly absurdist fashion. But special mention must go to Joel Sandel, playing Berenger’s co-worker, Dudard. It’s a special delight to see Sandel, known for his talent in period pieces and more traditional roles, let his hair down in this, his Catastrophic debut. If Sturdivant is to now play all the animal roles in the city, it should be mandatory that Sandel gets to show off his rhino impression every once in a while as it’s a hoot.

Just as there are no props to help the actors become rhinos, Ryan McGettigan’s set design is simple and effective. Hued in shades of dingy grey, with cloth-painted backdrops that become more tattered as the rhino stampedes increase, the whole thing has the feel of doom. Hudson Davis’ lighting adds to this atmosphere with smoky lighting eliciting trouble to come. But it’s Shawn St. John’s sound that we notice most. From rhino braying to the low rumbling of herds to full on stampede, John’s soundscape underpins the entire production, setting the mood for laughter or dread.

Unlike other timely political shows in the city that were coincidentally programmed, Catastrophic decided to mount Rhinoceros as a direct address to the present Trump era (they originally produced it in 2003 when the company was known as Infernal Bridegroom Productions). While there’s nothing disturbing about remounting a work, it is upsetting that this particular play needed to be dusted off and brought back. But since the need was there, we can at least celebrate that Catastrophic answered the call and that Cooper and her cast rang the alarm bell with such glorious finesse.

Rhinoceros continues through December 10 at The MATCH, 3400 Main. For tickets, call 713-521-4533 or visit catastrophictheatre.com or matchhouston.org. $35 suggested ticket price or pay what you can.