The premise of Eugene Ionesco's 1959 play Rhinoceros is simple: One morning in a small French town, a moony alcoholic named Bérenger discusses the vicissitudes of life with a pugnacious confidant named Jean, when all of a sudden a rhinoceros stampedes through the square.
The rhinoceros is commonly read as symbol for the 20th century's worst realized -isms, and Ionesco says that the play was inspired by watching his friends slowly become members of the far-right Iron Guard in his native Romania. But in the context of the 2016 election, it's hard not to put a ginger wig on the pachyderm and call it Trump.
Some people in the world of the play believe the rhino happened. Some people don't. Some believe it's a big deal. Some are less certain. At one point, in one of the cleverest scenes ever written, the village argues about whether the rhino has one or two horns and whether the horn count would indicate the beast's Asiatic or African origins.
What this play does—and has done for decades—is dramatize logic's folly in the face of evil. All the citizens' sidebar issues seem hilariously and harrowingly beside the point when rhinoceroses are trampling cats, destroying buildings, and making such a racket in the background that it's hard to hear one person's free-market solution to the problem over another's plea for incremental change.
While the townsfolk work out the particulars—truth verses fiction, right action verses wrong action verses inaction, etc.—nearly every single one of them transforms into a rhinoceros. The qualities that make them human end up being the same ones that turn them into animals: kindness, moderation, hate, love, the ability to compromise, an overactive imagination, excessive nonchalance. Excessive amounts of any one of these traits can lead to life as a rhino, and watching a character begin a scene with a desire simply to understand the rhino phenomenon and end it by growing thick skin and charging offstage disturbingly parallels the state of contemporary political discourse.
Trump's single-minded brutishness is infectious, as his rising poll numbers suggest. Language allows us to say stuff like "Well, I don't agree with everything Trump says, but I just don't trust Clinton," which is something you hear from Trump supporters all the time. But those "things" they don't agree with—his nastiness toward women, his attack on the Khan family—aren't gaffes. They define his personality. They're what make him and his followers rhinoceroses.
Reason also allows us to say, "Clinton is just as bad as Trump." If we see that sentence through the lens of this play, we can tell the idea fails to account for the fact that Trump is a rhinoceros. We can say a phrase such as "Voting for a third party in a state that's likely to go blue is not throwing your vote away," but we must realize what we're saying is that we're willing to risk giving a rhinoceros access to the nuclear codes for the chance to send a message to Clinton, and one she's likely not to heed.
The rhinoceros doesn't have to be Trump or Trump supporters, of course. From the perspective of a Green Party voter, the rhinoceroses might look like liberals succumbing to the power of a "neocon warmonger," when really there are other choices. Jill Stein happens to be running for president. So is Gary Johnson, who's enjoying 16 percent support in Washington State. After all, aren't I just being a rhinoceros about Trump being the rhinoceros in this play? Maybe. But even debating that idea neglects the indisputable fact that we're six weeks away from Election Day and DONALD TRUMP IS THE RHINOCEROS.
All this is to say that Strawberry Theatre Workshop's bare bones and basically faithful production estranges the current political climate enough for you to project your worries all over the stage, no matter your political affiliation. Bérenger is usually played by a man, but director Jess K Smith was smart to cast Carol Louise Thompson in the role. Her bug-eyed enthusiasm and warm starry-eye modes fit the play's tone perfectly. Shawn Belyea's full-bodied performance as Jean peaks when he turns into a rhinoceros onstage, spouting far-right "natural law" nonsense that sounds like today's Paleocon dicta. The ensemble in general manages to keep the play alive with that absurdist anything-can-happen energy that makes Ionesco's plays so fun.