‘Rhinoceros’ deals with themes of conformity and fascism
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‘Rhinoceros’ deals with themes of conformity and fascism

With highly controversial topics of conformity and fascism still relevant today, the theater department decided to showcase Eugène Ionesco’s play, “Rhinoceros,” for its first production of the year.

Dan Frye, a junior acting major, plays the lead role of Bérenger. He said the play’s theme of conformity is a big aspect of the show, and is one people can relate to.

“It resonates at any time when a big scary idea comes up that threatens to take hold and change society, that hinges on people following others, maybe not in their own best interest but because everyone else is doing it,” Frye said.

Director Raimondo Genna said the play’s theme is a warning against conformity, and has often been associated with fascism.

“Falling into group thinking conformity can lead to disastrous results. It’s embodied by the fact that everyone is turning into rhinos over the course of the play,” Genna said. “In our production, we’re not shying away from the dangers of fascism that’s embedded in the play. It’s more about just conforming to a single type of groupthink that then allows for aggressive, violent behavior to take place, and then that violence being incredibly normalized.”

Rhinoceroses as symbols

Senior theater major Andrea Tostado, who plays the character Daisy, said she took a trip to the zoo to prepare for her role.

Eugène Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” deals with themes of conformity. Molly Schiermeyer | The Volante

“I went to the zoo and watched rhinoceroses and tried seeing what they were doing,” Tostado said. “(I observed their) breathing patterns and the way they were kind of just chilling around, or when they would get angry and stomp around.”

The symbolism behind the rhino is that it’s harmless until provoked, Genna said.

“If you look at a rhino in its natural habit, it doesn’t do anything, but the reason it was chosen is because it is such a large, dangerous animal,” Genna said. “You wouldn’t want one of these things charging at you, and as a herd they can be very, very destructive.”

Although the animals can be perilous, Genna said there’s an attractiveness to them as well.

“At the same time, there is something seductive about it and that’s one of the messages of the play is that there is something seductive about fascist thinking and attitudes and actions,” he said. “We have to be wary that we don’t fall into those temptations, because it does seem to offer a simple solution.”

Genna said USD’s production will stay true to the play’s translation, but will make a few changes, such as using timpani drums to mimic the sounds of a rhinoceros running.  

Facing challenges

Genna said the play’s theme of conformity was difficult to portray.

“I think the biggest challenge was trying to convey the sense of conformity without really being too blatantly obvious about it, kind of like beating audiences over the head with the idea of conformity,” he said.

Another challenge the cast and crew faced is the play’s dark undertones.

“(Audiences) will probably think it’s really weird — they might not get it,” Tostada said. “Hopefully they go away with the thought of ‘What can I do to be a better person?’ Or, if they walk away laughing and think that it was a funny show, that would be even better.”

Frye said trying to balance the play’s comedic yet dramatic tendencies is a challenge.

“It’s a comedy in the fact that’s it’s an absurd kind of show, people are turning into rhinos. It’s weird stuff,” Frye said. “It’s a combination of very high dramatic moments when he’s talking to the audience and there’s a lot of funny moments.”

Director Raimondo Genna and lead actor Dan Frye work together on Frye’s role of Bérenger in the production of “Rhinoceros.” Molly Schiermeyer | The Volante

Frye said he also had some challenges with his role.

“He has a lot to say in this show. In the end, he’s the last man left and he has this two page monologue, so just being able to buckle down and saying to myself, ‘These are the lines I’ve got to do in the amount of time,'” Frye said. “It made me feel like I had to work really hard to earn it, which was a good feeling.”

Genna said he doesn’t like to tell the audience what they should think after seeing a show.

“I leave that up to them,” Genna said. “I just hope that when they leave, it’s not so much about what are they thinking, it’s that they are thinking and questioning and sparking discussions. That’s what I’m hoping for.”

“Rhinoceros” plays at Knutson Theatre in the Warren M. Lee Center for Fine Arts Sept. 28 through Oct. 1 and from Oct .4 to Oct. 8.