Ben Park in "Rhinoceros" | Photo by Isaac Spradlin
Ben Park in “Rhinoceros” | Photo by Isaac Spradlin

Before we talk about Commonwealth Theatre Center’s production of “Rhinoceros,” the 1959 absurdist French political farce by Eugene Ionesco, we may need to address the elephant in the room.

If one were alarmed by the rhetoric of a certain president-elect, or felt that his sudden rise to power was frightening, it would be pretty much impossible to pick a more timely play.

“Rhinoceros” tells the story of a small French town where, one by one, every inhabitant turns into a rhinoceros and succumbs to an animalistic mob mentality. It’s generally considered a response to the rise of fascism in Europe leading up to World War II. For anyone who was saying, “How did this war and these atrocities happen?,” “Rhinoceros” presented a scathing and humorous allegory to explain.

The center’s production of “Rhinoceros” is being presented by its Professional Company-In-Residence, the group of professional teachers and performers who make up the full-time staff. It’s the third show the company has performed since they formed right after the merger between Walden Theatre and Blue Apple Players. Suddenly there were enough full-time professionals around that you could fill a stage with them.

Yearly performances tie into curricula and provide some student actors the chance to be on stage with their teachers, a practice the center calls “space teaching.”

Director Hal Park
Director Hal Park

To talk about this production, Insider reached out to director Hal Park and actor Hallie Kirk Dizdarevic, who also teaches at the center. We asked them about art, politics and working with teenagers on political theater during a time when theater as an agent of political speech has recently received scrutiny from that aforementioned elephant.

Park is a veteran of the Louisville scene, and he’s been directing kids and adults for decades.

“Theater is always relevant,” he said. “If you go see ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ it will always be relevant to the day and the time. Right? There are universal and enormous issues at stake in that play. And that’s why we do Shakespeare, and Chekhov, and no matter when you see it, it’s relevant.”

Despite the universality and relevance of the great works, Park says this production is different. As he told his students, “It will be rare in your life that you stand up and perform a play that is as politically relevant as ‘Rhinoceros’ is today.”

During our interview, Park was careful not to overtly state his political side, even though the content of his statements seemed to paint a pretty blue picture, not surprising from an artist in The Louisville Lake. In this day and age of overtly political reporting and misleading or downright fake news, it seems kind of sweet and old-fashioned that he attempted to keep his statements nonpartisan.

Hallie Kirk Diz | Photo by Mera Kathryn Corlett
Hallie Kirk Dizdarevic | Photo by Mera Kathryn Corlett

Dizdarevic is younger, though, a millennial, and she’s less shy about her stance.

“The day after the election, we had rehearsal, and, you know, the students — all throughout the building there was a hush — people looked dazed and terrified,” she said. You could tell from the hushed tone in her voice that the students weren’t the only ones having those feelings.

Just before she started working on “Rhinoceros” — she plays Daisey, the lead character’s love interest — Dizdarevic was working with a group of teenagers at CTC on a Tony Kushner play “A Bright Room Called Day.” It’s another production that deals with fascism, and it compares the rise of Hitler to the power and politics of Reagan in the 1980s.

This entire semester, Commonwealth Theatre Center has been focusing on political theater. It’s in the curriculum, and the selection of “A Bright Room” and “Rhinoceros” purposefully reflects those teaching goals. Students see it on the page, on the stage and in the classroom.

“When we were planning the season last year, we said, ‘We want to do ‘Bright Room,’ we want to do ‘Rhinoceros.’ It’s probably going to piss some people off,'” Dizdarevic recalled. Charlie Sexton, artistic director, said, “‘Good.’”

Park mentioned the history of political speech in theater and how it goes back — way back.

“Go all the way back to Aristophanes, and he used his comedies specifically to make very relevant points about the culture and the society,” Park said. Aristophanes is the famous Greek playwright who would savage local politicians with his plays in ancient Athens. That’s actually about as far back as Western culture can trace theater history. So it’s almost as if the very first thing humans started doing with theater was skewering politicians.

rhino-poster-final-x650xThe production and its teaching goals aren’t just about theater history. Dizdarevic is on stage with students she’s been teaching for years, and she relates some specific challenges for them in this production. “I think the level of complexity in this particular script is a challenge that is new to them, especially the overlapping dialogue,” she said. It is “a tremendous exercise in listening for all of us.”

Dizdarevic says she thinks the political climate and the political edge to the curriculum has lit a fire under some of her students, encouraging them to be more active as citizens and artists. But it sounds like the students aren’t the only ones who’ve been affected. “I guess my first thought after the election was, ‘Well, I guess now we’ve got to make some really excellent art,’” she said.

Sometimes that art and the questions it asks leaves us with some disturbing answers.

“This play is pretty haunting, because, in the end, there’s only one person who stays true to their own ideas and their own voice, and that person in that moment is faltering,” Dizdarevic said.

“Rhinoceros” runs Dec. 9 to 10 and 15 to 17 at 7:30 p.m. at the Commonwealth Theatre Center, 1123 Payne St. Tickets are $15, or $10 for students and seniors. For reservations, call 589-0084 or email [email protected].

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Eli Keel
Eli Keel is “pretty much” a Louisville native. You may have seen him around town reading poetry, short stories, dancing or acting. He’s a passionate locavore, so you may have also seen him stuffing his face at one of Louisville’s amazing restaurants. When he isn’t too busy writing short stories, he blogs at amanwalksintoablog.wordpress.com.