Give the rhinos a chance: Interview with the actors of Ionesco’s RHINOCEROS

The cast of the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium's RHINOCEROS.
The cast of the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium’s RHINOCEROS.

I asked cast members of the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium (IRC), Philadelphia’s absurdist theatre (since 2006), founded by artistic director Tina Brock, what Ionesco’s RHINOCEROS brought up for them as actors and as people. The range of responses is as astounding as this production. A big thank you to everyone who participated in this Phindie interview.

HE: Michael Dura, you played a range of roles—the Grocer, one of the Firemen, the Old Man, and several rhinos. Did you see them as dangerous invaders?

Michael Dura: I’d be willing to give the rhinos a chance. I’ve seen it happen many times in my life that multitudes of people get swept up in a new idea or fad, and it’s usually over something that’s either stupid or downright bad, but when this happens, it’s usually short lived and soon fizzles out. You don’t always know where it will lead, until it’s been in process for a while. 

HE: If quite a few people in your life act like Ionesco’s rhinos, how do they respond when you try to communicate with them? 

MD: What’s really dangerous in my mind is a complacent, uninformed attitude of some people. When I try to argue with that crowd over a serious mistake that society is making, I usually get answers like, “That’s the way it is.” 

The main character of the play, Berenger, knows that the rhinoceros fad is bad, but he can’t explain why. He says he knows instinctively or intuitively. Well, this is most of society. You ask them how they feel about this or that segment of society and they say, “Kill the bastards.” You ask them why, and you get, “This is America.”

HE: Jerry, you go all out as Papillon and The Waitress. What did Ionesco’s RHINOCEROS bring up for you in your life in terms of group mentality at work?

Jerry Rudasill: I actually had fellow Black People [Mr. Rudasill’s caps] call me a “sell out” for not condoning the violence [during the 1992 LA Riots sparked by the beating of Rodney King]. During the OJ Simpson trial, many White People were so enraged by the verdict they took it upon themselves to share that disappointment with every Black Person they knew, to the extent I was frequently accused of thinking OJ was innocent when I had very publicly and frequently explained how I thought he was guilty—which led to some very uncomfortable moments at my job at the time. And just about every discussion I’ve had involving politics, religion, abortion, race, war, income inequality, and the myth of trickle-down economics.

HE: David Stanger, you take on the role of Jean, the brilliant, argumentative counterpart to Monsieur Berenger. How do you relate to the herd of rhinoceros?

David Stanger: The rhino herd, at least for me, has come to symbolize the primal aspect of conformity. Perhaps it’s due to our ancestors’ necessity to survive that we look for strength in numbers, but whatever the reason, I think there still exists a survival instinct to follow the herd, even if that means following something we wouldn’t necessarily invest or believe in were we to take the time and effort to examine the cause. 

HE: If conformity is part of one’s social and sometimes physical survival, how do you survive?

DS: I have never felt overly comfortable with a crowd mentality, and I deeply sympathized with Berenger’s plight—both his being ostracized for not keeping with social norms and his fear and defiance in the face of a world gone mad with its desire to conform.

HE: Ethan, you give us a moving portrayal of Berenger, the survivor. Where do you see rhinos in America today? 

Ethan Lipkin: To me Rhinocerotitis is best illustrated in modern political speech, and that filters down to general political discourse between the herds of “we, the people.” The phenomenon is most striking on the right, where there is an organized network of televised news sources, nationally syndicated talk radio programs—that do not exist on the left—and journalistically dubious news websites which echo daily messages that are then absorbed by followers and parroted in discussion, social apps, and message boards nationally—as if in one voice.

HE: Bob Schmidt, you act as both the Café Proprietor and Monsieur Botard. Could you give an example where you were drawn to a herd and did something that you now regret?

Bob Schmidt: When I was much younger, my best friend was the neighborhood mayor—a very outgoing, savvy kid, a natural born leader. He organized and hosted most of our daily activities. Unfortunately, he was also a bit of a bully, and enjoyed harassing and teasing certain neighborhood kids. Even though I knew it was wrong, I joined him on numerous pranks that, at the time, we thought were extremely hilarious, but, in retrospect, were downright mean and often an insult to the poor kids’ religion. Since then, I’ve made it a point not to be swept up in anything like it ever again.

HE: What did performing RHINOCEROS in 2014 bring up for you?

BS: In today’s world the herd of rhinos is the constant motion of modern life. We’re so busy running from one thing to another and multitasking that we’re really focusing on the wrong things. The tools that have been created to draw us closer—smart phones, Internet, social networks—are actually alienating us from each other. All of this is pushing us away from each other into our own insulated world—a mass conformity of isolated individuals.

HE: Maryruth, you play the Housewife and Madame Boeuf. How do you see the rhinoceros? 

Maryruth Stine: While there are many contemporary and historical allegories for the rhinoceri, I must admit that substitutions have never worked for me as an actor. So, while I have drawn many political parallels in considering the play from a dramaturgical perspective, especially in regards to “the change” as a disease as opposed to a political movement, as an actor I just go all in. The world of the play is the realest world, and it’s the rhinos that are the most terrifying, captivating, soothing, and seductive. 

HE: Steve Lippe, you present Ionesco’s illogical Logician and you bring down the house numerous times with incorrect answers or new absurd definitions. What is your take on RHINOCEROS?

Steve Lippe: The rhino herd or meshpocha [Hebrew for “family”] is a physical manifestation of the conflict all people have of wanting to be part of something versus the need to be apart. The conflict is humanized, or should I say rhinocerized, by Jean and Berenger’s relationship to each other, and each individual’s relation to themselves.

HE: And where are you with your life in this challenging, fear inducing play? 

SL: My personal response? I imagined I was being confronted by my worst fear—which I am not disclosing!

HE: Let me disclose to you and the whole ensemble that this production made me laugh and think—often all at once. Many thanks to everyone.

You can see RHINOCEROS at the Adrienne Theater, 2030 Sansom St. Sept. 2-21, 2014.

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