Leader of the Pachyderm

For the first time in the seven years I've attended Planet Earth Theatre, I was not ushered to my seat by a drooling, incense-burning harpy. I was not panhandled in the lobby nor handed a program riddled with typos. More important, I was not made to sit through two hours of wailing and screeching billed as "revisionist theater." While the house seats--tiny, 40-year-old wooden school-desk chairs cushioned with filthy old throw pillows--are as cold and hard as ever, the entertainment set before them these days is refreshing and new. The production of Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros that's currently playing at Planet Earth is a lively, confident creation, and a hopeful harbinger of the theater's new direction.

The changes to this quirky theater--which is just now kicking off its new season--can be credited to Arizona State University theater professor Jared Sakren, the company's new artistic director. Sakren stepped in after Planet Earth co-founders Peter and Mollie Cirino relocated to Seattle at the end of last season. When the Cirinos put out a call for a new head of operations, Sakren proved to be the best director for the job--as well as the only one who applied.

"The Cirinos were out the door," Sakren says, "and nobody was interested in keeping Planet Earth running. They were going to shut the place down, but I jumped in and, without an organizational plan of any kind, have been trying to keep the doors open ever since."

It's likely that Sakren will have more time to devote to running his theater at semester's end. He's recently hired a lawyer to help him address what he's carefully calling "violations perpetrated against me over the last few years by my employers." Those violations, according to Sakren, include ASU's exception to his choice of classroom material. "I'm being criticized by the college for being wedded to the classics, and for offending feminists with what they're calling 'selections from a sexist canon,' whatever that means. By questioning my choices, ASU is violating my artistic and academic freedom."

Sakren hopes to reclaim some of his artistic freedom by parenting Planet Earth. "We don't feel any pressure to live up to an established standard on this stage," he says. "This is a place where young artists are given permission to try anything. Where I'm going to respect other voices and not dictate a principle based in some classical notion of what theater should be about."

Given his current situation, it's probably no coincidence that Sakren has chosen for his first production a play about fascism. Rhinoceros, first produced in 1960, is about how conformity can lead to ruin, a subject much on Sakren's mind these days. The play marked Ionesco's breakthrough into English-speaking theater, and was written as a commentary on the Nazi takeover of World War II France. Rhinoceros casts humankind as lumbering, unevolved savages in a story about a man who watches his hometown turn into a herd of pachyderms. Ionesco's still-timely message--that a "mass mind" mentality will lead to mankind's transformation into a brood of brainless beasts--mixes humor and horror and is usually misinterpreted as light comedy.

Here, in its Planet Earth production, the play is given an appropriately dark translation. Sakren punches up the playwright's lumbering, less-than-subtle metaphors with digs at contemporary culture and violently animated scenes of destruction. Some simple sight gags cut the tension: Characters haul silly props around with them, then wander offstage to be replaced by goofy rhino horns that thrust at the audience through holes punched into the simple set.

The usual Planet Earth suspects are nowhere in evidence. Sakren's cast features mostly new faces, many of them young, surprisingly talented theater students with a flair for interpreting Ionesco's nonsensical language. Young Ryan Busch plays the lead with surprising style; he took most of the laughs the night I saw the play. Veteran player Hamilton Mitchell hams it up mercilessly, but generously hands several scenes to his younger colleagues.

Sakren has made an impressive first showing with Rhinoceros. The production falls somewhere between Planet Earth's usual unrefined weirdness and some of ASU's slicker student productions. Despite strong ticket sales and some positive reviews, Sakren won't be extending the show; he's preoccupied these days, preparing for a taped interview with Dan Rather, who's planning a piece on Sakren's ASU troubles for CBS' "Eye on America" program.

Although plans for the theater's future are sketchy right now, Sakren promises a full season next year. He's even scored some new theater seats from a recently defunct Harkins movie house. "We plan to continue to do multicultural theater," he says. "We're looking at plays by Hispanic writers and for a piece that will appeal to the African-American community. I'd like to do some Shakespeare, and maybe develop a workshop for young directors who want to hone their talents here."

Meantime, Sakren is gearing up to do battle with his employers. "I have this silly notion that theater should be about artistic freedom of choice," he says. "And Planet Earth isn't the only place I'd like to prove that."

Rhinoceros continues through Saturday, March 28, at Planet Earth Theatre, 909 North Third Street. For more information, see the Performance listing in Thrills.