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“Rhinoceros” is as relevant now as ever

How many rhinoceroses does it take to fill the stage of UMBC’s Proscenium Theatre? In the case of this production of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist masterpiece, it’s actually none. Not a single rhinoceros is seen throughout the entire production, and yet their presence is palpable from the moment the curtain rises. By the time the final curtain falls, the entire stage seems to be filled with them, despite the fact that it is all but empty.

The rhinos of the play are a far cry from the adorable rhinos on the Discovery Channel. Though there are certainly literal rhinoceroses throughout the play, the rhinoceros itself serves more as a metaphor for political ideologies. When Ionesco first wrote the play, the rhinos serves as a symbol for fascism and communism. As the director, Eve Muson, notes in the program, the rhinos here serve more as a symbol for Donald Drumpf and his supporters. Several times throughout the play, characters will recite his rhetoric, “We ought to build a wall!,” in reference to barring foreign cats from stealing mice from domestic cats. Ultimately, every character transforms into a rhino for their own personal reasons.

The play itself takes place in France, though the particular era was difficult to place. Throughout the course of the acts, the stage transforms from a dream-like Parisian corner to a large and impressive office building, and then again from an aristocratic and fashionable apartment to a war-torn street. These transformations are seamless and incredible to witness, often happening without the audience really realizing that a transformation is taking place. Through the use of hydraulics, parts of the set are wheeled onto the stage while other are lowered down from the ceiling.  The sets seemed to reflect the sheer size and dominance of the rhinos themselves at many points of the production.

The primary protagonist, a world-weary and self-deprecating alcoholic named Albert Berenger (played wonderfully by Clay Vanderbeek), makes his entrance on stage by tripping over his own feet and somersaulting forward, landing sprawled out before the audience. Though several characters remark on his unkempt and unshaven appearance, Venderbeek himself was well-groomed and clean-shaven.

It is clear from the onset that the town suffers from a mob-mentality of sorts. Every time the word “morning” is uttered, it is met with a cheery onslaught of “Morning!” from the rest of the cast. By the end, every character, save for Albert, has transformed into a monstrous rhinoceros, with one of the last to transform declaring “We must move with the times!” By the end of the play, Albert appears to be the last human on earth, and in an I Am Legend-esque twist, he realizes that he has now become the monstrous outsider in a world of conformist rhinos.

Though the small cast of nine was filled with wonderful performances, Vanderbeek, Hannah Kelly and Brielle Levenberg deserve recognition for remarkable performances. The show itself was put together masterfully, and through incredible acting, lighting, stage design and sound, an empty stage seemed to be filled with rhinoceroses. The experience itself was nothing short of magnificent, and the theme is especially fitting in our own modern era of political turmoil.