When Elizabeth Helman of Oregon State University's Theatre Department reached out to Ajai Tripathi to see if he wanted to direct one of this season's plays, his thoughts drifted back a decade.
At the time, Tripathi was a student at OSU. The play he wanted to direct back then? Eugène Ionesco's absurdist political comedy "Rhinoceros."
So Tripathi, a 2007 OSU graduate, didn't have to think too hard about what to direct at OSU: "'Rhinoceros' was my first choice," he said.
And so Tripathi's production of "Rhinoceros" debuts Thursday night for a two-weekend run at OSU's Withycombe Hall main stage theater.
Maybe the decade-long wait was worth it: "Now it seems way more relevant than ever," Tripathi said of Ionesco's 1959 exploration of the spread of fascism and the power of the group mentality: "Why is it so easy for people to turn into animals so quickly?"
The wait also gave Tripathi the chance to use a new adaptation of the play by Wes Savick. Tripathi said Savick's 2016 take on the play trims away some of the didactic qualities of the original and picks up the pace.
In the trimmed-down version, Tripathi said, the play is lean, brisk and hilarious — but it turns progressively darker as it moves along. And, he said, the play's ending has real power: "It's actually very, very moving by the conclusion of it."
Ionesco's political allegory tells the story of a small town whose residents are transforming into rhinoceroses. One man, the frustrated Berenger (played by Thomas McKean), attempts to resist the transformation, and becomes increasingly paranoid as the play moves briskly along.
But to paraphrase an old saying, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that rhinoceroses aren't rampaging through your town.
Tripathi is working with a cast of OSU students for the production, and said his actors are deftly handling the tricky business of finding just the right tone.
And they are working hard at making sure the tempo of the production is lightning-fast: Savick, the creator of the new version, specifies in his notes that the actors "have to pick it up," Tripathi said. "When it's too slow, it doesn't work."
Tripathi lives in Hillsboro and works as a tour manager for Portland's Milagro Theatre, but he's been spending a lot of time lately in the mid-valley. In addition to his chores as director of "Rhinoceros," he's also in the middle of directing "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," coming up in a couple of weeks at the Majestic Theatre's Reader's Theatre.
"It's been kind of an unsustainable couple of months," he said, but he's having a good time with both shows — "so much fun that the commute isn't a problem."
And, after waiting a decade, he's relishing the chance to finally bring "Rhinoceros" to the stage: "I know a lot more than I did 10 years ago," Tripathi said, and the play itself hasn't lost any of its topical punch:
"We need art like this," he said, "to put things in perspective."