The Southern Virginia University theatre program will present Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco during the last two weekends in February. The play will run February 19-20 and 26-27 in Chandler Auditorium on the Southern Virginia campus. Curtain time is 7:30 p.m.
Written in 1959, Rhinoceros tells the story of a man in a small French town whose friends and co-workers start turning into dangerous rhinos. If this sounds absurd, it’s because the play is written by one of the masters of Theatre of the Absurd. Ionesco said his play was influenced by the acceptance of Nazism, Fascism and Communism before and during World War II.
But the play can’t be pigeon-holed that easily; it explores many other themes relating to conformity and morality, eventually posing the question, “How much does our humanity mean to us, and is it worth keeping?”
Director Robert Bowen Smith, a Southern Virginia alumnus who holds graduate degrees from Mary Baldwin College, directs Rhinoceros. He returned to Southern Virginia University as an adjunct instructor of theatre in fall 2008. Southern Virginia hasn’t performed a full absurdist play before, and Smith feels Rhinoceros has a message appropriate for the student body as well as the community.
From Smith’s vantage point, the play has also given the students opportunities to grow—both in the sheer volume of lines to learn and in the inherent challenges of portraying theme and meaning through the absurdist genre. “They’re growing, developing and progressing steadily,” Smith observes.
Student actor Buck Watkins, who plays Jean in the play, has enjoyed working with Smith. “His style is really based on characterization and movement, which helps actors to realize what they’re doing at all times.”
Rhinoceros is not a simple show; twenty other students join Watkins onstage, creating hilarious, heartbreaking characters. Audience favorite Nate Pence plays Berenger, the man who watches his friends turn into rhinos. Arielle Tanner plays Daisy, Pence’s love interest. Incidental music enhances the show by reflecting the plot development; it gets wilder and wilder as the play goes on.
While Rhinoceros definitely entertains, director Smith says Ionesco intended for all of his plays to educate, too. “It sends a strong message,” he emphasizes.
“This is a show unlike anything that has been put on at Southern Virginia. It’s comical, witty and completely absurd, but also inquisitive, honest and tragic,” says Watkins.
Tickets are $4 for Southern Virginia students, faculty and staff; $6 for general admission; $4 for senior citizens. The play is not recommended for children.