It was the end of the Spring 2017 semester and the Castleton Theatre Department’s 2017-18 season was all selected, scheduled and announced.
And then something happened.
He likes the play, but that’s not the only reason Castleton Threatre Arts professor Harry McEnerny decided to change plans and direct Eugène Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros,” an absurdist play from the WWII era, this past September at Castleton University.
As a group, while considering student feedback, theatre arts faculty get together every spring to discuss and announce the upcoming season. For the 2017-2018 season, Castleton was going to produce the shows “Moon Over Buffalo,” The Liar,” and “Guys and Dolls.”
“We decided as a group that this what were going to do. Then something happened,” McEnerny said with a look of seriousness.
McEnerny said the events in Charlottesville made him go “uhh?!”
“So Charlottesville, um, it’s a… it’s a big deal in the south. It’s a big deal nationally, that monuments are being taken down; monuments to civil war heroes, not my word,” he said.
The monuments were taken down at night, in the cover of darkness. In Baltimore, they were taken down within minutes overnight; there one day and gone the next. But in Charlottesville, the town council voted to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee.
“White supremacist groups didn’t like that decision because they felt it as an attack on their heritage,” McEnerny said, followed by a pause.
The news reported that white supremacist groups went to Charlottesville to protest the decision to remove the monument, without masks and carrying torches.
“It’s not like the KKK anymore, this is all of a sudden wide open out in the public,” he said.
The event resulted in the murder of two Virginia State Troopers and a woman from Ohio, a peaceful protestor. It took the current U.S. administration two days to respond to the situation and in a public statement, President Donald Trump said there was wrong committed on both sides.
“By doing that, they essentially, no, not essentially, actually,” McEnerny sighed and paused, “equated white supremacists with anti-racist protestors. In this administration’s eyes, those are the same thing.”
After a good five-second pause, he said “That’s why ‘Rhinoceros.’”
Making a statement
“Theatre should be — theatre is powerful,” McEnerny said. “Theatre can be relevant in ways that other medias cannot be: the imitation of an action.” He also mentioned the importance of the immediacy of seeing a play, something you can’t get from a movie.
When you watch a movie, McEnerny said, you can choose how you watch it. You can go see a movie when it comes out in theaters, or you can wait until it comes out on DVD and rent it. When you watch a movie at home, you can sit on your couch and have a conversation while eating popcorn.
When you see something in the movie that sparks your attention, you can pause the movie and talk about it.
“You… can’t do that with a play. You have to choose, you have to go there; so you buy into it,” McEnerny said. “Theatre is temporal, it happens in space and time, and then it’s gone.”
McEnerny said, “Rhinoceros” is “an anti-fascist play, it’s an anti-leftist play, it’s an anti—um… it’s an anti-hate play.” Ionesco was born in 1909 in France. He grew up around the time that France was decimated after the end of WWI, during the recovery.
Ionesco was in his thirties and away at academia during the beginning of WWII. The war brought along an uprise of leftist/fascist movements. He was surprised to see how easily and quickly his friends, who he considered intellectuals, moved into those ideologies, “the ideologies of hate, and superiority, and supremacy. Ionesco called them demi-intellectuals after that,” McEnerny said.
To Ionesco, intellectuals were those individuals who stayed away from the uprising ideologies. “A generation of people thought it was a good idea, not just something to think about, but a good idea to round up as many Jewish people as we can and annihilate them, for the… uhh,” McEnerny said coming to a loss of words. “I don’t know. I don’t know why. I mean, I don’t know why.”
McEnerny believes Ionesco’s play seems more relevant than it has ever been since it was written, due to the growing movement of hate and fear in our own country that seems to be top-driven.
“That’s why I wanted to do this play — two reasons why I wanted to do this play… three reasons,” laughed McEnerny. The other two reasons he was referring to were subject matter and the power of theatre.
The actors’ take
Garrett Robin, a Castleton senior theatre arts and political science major from Pittsford, played the lead role of Berenger in “Rhinoceros.”
“This play meant a lot to me because it combined two of my passions in a broad way: acting and politics,” Robin said. “This year especially has had a lot of affects on my political views.”
Robin’s favorite part of this production wasn’t the acting or directing; he enjoyed in-depth conversations with McEnerny while working on establishing his character.
“A lot of the times Harry’s and my interpretation would differ, and we would battle it out until we found a middle ground,” he said.
Becoming a rhinoceros, according to Robin, meant a loss of individuality, “joining the “bandwagon in a sense.” McEnerny’s production included similar hairstyles and costume colors among the cast to give the sense of collectiveness.
McEnerny also used technical elements in this production to echo the over-stimulating world of media that we live in today. He used live-feed cameras, held by stage crew right on stage, to film different perspectives of the scene the audience would be currently watching.
Katy Albert, a senior theatre arts major, worked on makeup and costumes for the production. During a scene where one of the characters, Jean, transformed into a rhinoceros, Albert was backstage being filmed live, while applying stage makeup to the actor for the audience to see.
“This production allowed the audience to choose their own perspective by looking at the universe on stage or seeing what’s really happening backstage,” Albert said. “However, it did feel weird doing tech backstage and knowing you’re being watched.”
CU is not alone
McEnerny isn’t the only one directing “Rhinoceros” this season. According to the Samuel French website, one of the main play publishing companies, 16 other schools across the nation, as well as globally, performed or plan to perform Ionesco’s play.
One school is Southern Arkansas University. Tiffany Antone, professor in the theatre and mass communication department, plans to direct the show this month at the school’s campus. Like McEnerny, current events led Antone to ultimately choose to direct the play.
“I was absolutely inspired to work on ‘Rhinoceros’ after this past election season. The growing divisiveness and tribalism currently at play in our nation, and others, is so artfully explored in ‘Rhinoceros’ that is seemed a necessary piece,” Antone said.
It also presented an opportunity for college-age students to be exposed to the absurdist styles of theatre, she said.
Ionesco’s character, Daisy, says in the play, “There are many sides to reality. Choose the one that’s best for you. Escape into the world of imagination.”
Like most absurdist plays, Ionesco wrote “Rhinoceros” to ask a question that wouldn’t necessarily be answered; he wanted to explore the mindset of someone who would essentially give up their humanity.
“If our audience leaves asking themselves what it means to be human, I’ll be happy, because it means they’re examining their own humanity in the face of all the animalistic tribalism we’re seeing right now,” Antone said.