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A Galloping Rhinoceros Opens Joan & Edgar Booth Theatre

Ionesco’s absurdism gets a full-bore production in new BU venue

The new Joan & Edgar Booth Theatre has extraordinary production capabilities, and Clay Hopper is using them to destroy the world—theatrically speaking.

Hopper (CFA’05), a College of Fine Arts lecturer in directing and theater arts, directs the venue’s February 21 debut production, Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, an absurdist allegory of societal decay that Hopper believes is appropriate for our times. “What we’re trying to do is depict irreversible destruction through the course of the play,” he says. “The rhinoceroses, as people change into them, destroy the world. The ceiling of the theater will appear to collapse at certain points. If all goes well, it’s going to be pretty spectacular.”

In Ionesco’s tale, one person transforms into a roaring, destructive rhino, then another and another, until being a rhino is the new normal, and only one man is left to resist the change.

Lighting designer Gifford Williams

Lighting designer Gifford Williams (MFA’18) (center), and director Clay Hopper (CFA’05) (right) mull a decision at tech rehearsal for Rhinoceros.

“The way everyone deals with that phenomenon has a direct corollary to the way that we’ve been dealing with Trumpism,” Hopper says, noting he began thinking about producing the play immediately after election day in 2016. “It’s not fascism we’re talking about now, but it’s something that is insidious, pervasive, and polarizing.

“Logic itself is bent to the purposes of turning into a rhinoceros. People argue about irrelevant things—do they have one horn or two?—not, why is this happening?’” he says.

In many productions of the play, the rhinos are heard but not seen, or they appear only as shadows. Hopper doesn’t want to spoil any of his production’s special effects, but he does say that he’ll use every capability the theater offers, from the 16-foot-deep pit under the stage to raising the stage to splitting the stage and more. The Booth has a capacity of 250, but only 200 will be seated for this production, in two rows of chairs around the stage and another row on the first balcony.

“We’re going to be changing the shape and feeling of the theater space radically through the course of the show,” he says. “What makes it so scary is what makes it thrilling. Every time we came up with a crazier design idea, we were met with ‘OK!’ The amount of leeway we have is pretty incredible.”

Trap doors and under-stage spaces are just two of the many staging options that the Booth Theatre offers. From left, Ben Murphy (CFA’20) as Dudard, Alfred Bardwell-Evans (CFA’20) as Old Gent/Monsieur Papillon, Sophie Gore (CFA‘18) as Grocer Woman/M. Boef, and Daniel Abbes (CFA'20) as Berenger.

Trap doors and under-stage spaces are just two of the many staging options that the Booth Theatre offers. From left, Ben Murphy (CFA’20) as Dudard, Alfred Bardwell-Evans (CFA’20) as Old Gent/Monsieur Papillon, Sophie Gore (CFA18) as Grocer Woman/M. Boef, and Daniel Abbes (CFA20) as Berenger.

The Booth is BU’s new state-of-the-art theater, built with the help of a $10 million gift from BU trustee Steve Zide (LAW’86), which honors his wife’s parents, Joan and Edgar Booth. With the adjacent College of Fine Arts Production Center, the combined facility matches the functionality of any venue its size in the Boston area.

“The new space is providing us with a real amusement park of a laboratory to do the play in,” says Jim Petosa, director of the School of Theatre and a professor of directing and dramatic criticism. “I visited rehearsal the other day, and they’re going nuts in there. I’m looking forward to what they come up with.”

Rhinoceros is the first of three shows scheduled this semester. It will be followed by InMotion Theatre: The Journey, directed by Yo-EL Cassell, playing April 19 to 22, a different kind of take on Moby Dick, and a Petosa-directed production of Antigone, from May 4 to 9.

Hopper’s Rhinoceros employs a graduate student design team led by scenic designer Paul Dufresne (CFA’19), lighting designer Gifford Williams (CFA’18), sound designer Collin Priddy-Barnum (CFA’18), and costume designer Alyssa Korol (CFA’18), along with a cast of undergraduate actors.

One of them is actor Daniel Abbes (CFA’20), who leads tours of the theater for prospective students. He has recently been showing his charges the costume that he will wear as Bérenger, the lead character in Rhinoceros—and the only person who doesn’t sprout a horn.

The cast of Rhinoceros in rehearsal

The cast of Rhinoceros in rehearsal: Ben Murphy (CFA’20) as Dudard, crouching, and from left, Daniel Abbes (CFA'20) as Berenger, Sophie Gore (CFA18) as Grocer Woman/M. Boef, and Mackenzie Cala (CFA18) as Daisy.

“Bérenger is the everyman,” Abbes says. “He’s based on Ionesco himself, when he was in France watching his friends, his peers, his colleagues slowly pick up this language of fascism that led to the rise of the Third Reich and the Nazis.” The rhinoceros symbolizes a group mentality, a mob mentality, more than any particular ideology, he says.

“What keeps him from falling into this mob and turning into a rhinoceros is this steadfast refusal, this rejection of something he knows is fundamentally bad,” Abbes says. “He can’t win that way. But the fact that he does not give in is a testament, it’s a statement that’s much bigger than him.”

Rhinoceros, by Eugène Ionesco, translated by Martin Crimp, plays at the Joan & Edgar Booth Theatre, 820 Commonwealth Ave., Wednesday, February 21, and Thursday, February 22, at 7:30 pm, Friday, February 23, and Saturday, February 24, at 8 pm, and Sunday, February 25, at 2 pm. Tickets are $15 for general admission; $10 for BU alumni; $7.50 with CFA membership; and free with BU ID at the door on the day of performance, subject to availability. Find details here.

Joel Brown, Staff Writer for BU Today, Bostonia and BU Today Marketing & Communications
Joel Brown

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@bu.edu.

One Comment on A Galloping Rhinoceros Opens Joan & Edgar Booth Theatre

  • BU Parent x 2 on 02.23.2018 at 8:04 pm

    Where do I begin with the accolades? Congrats to all in the School of Theatre and welcome home to Comm Ave. For years your great work has been hidden on that other campus and now, its here for all to enjoy.

    What a production!!! What talent!!! What exciting theatre!!! Congrats to all in the production of Rhinoceros. You initiated your new home with an exciting theatrical event that I’ll never forget.

    Finally, to the project team that created the Booth and production wing, esp the design team. You’ve created a space where there are no limits to what the talented students and faculty can produce.

    Congrats to all and Thank You!!!

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