Older, battered, wiser: The Rhino Theater Fest charges into battle once more as the city's longest-surviving fringe-theater fest
The Rhinoceros Theater Festival charges into its 17th year on Wednesday 7. And despite the venerable event's shoestring budget and limited resources, its indefatigable organizers—seminal Chicago fringe-theater pioneers Beau O'Reilly and Jenny Magnus—are once again going whole hog, staging seven weeks of works by many new and emerging experimental artists (and plenty of old ones). Their perseverance as the court jesters of the theater community is impressive, but as far as they're concerned, the mission fits the original mandate: This compendium of cutting-edge theater and performance takes its name not from Eugene Ionesco's absurdist drama Rhinoceros, but rather from Salvador Dalí, who used the term rhinoceric to describe something "really big."
This time around, the long-wandering Rhino will recharge its batteries at Prop Thtr, where O'Reilly and Magnus, known mainly for their work with their own Curious Theatre Branch company, are artists-in-residence. (Prop was cofounded by Magnus's husband, Stephan Brun.) The off-the-beaten-path space on Elston Avenue's industrial corridor is a safe watering hole compared to the Rhino's last stand in Rogers Park, where gang activity near their small rented space at Lunt and Glenwood Avenues made it difficult to attract audiences. Magnus refers to it as "the evil, horrible space" and "a money suck."
Now ensconced at Prop for the first time, the fest appears to have a chance to return to full strength and prominence. That's partly due to the unfortunate, recent demise of the PAC/edge Festival, the city's other major fringe-theater festival, which soldiered on for three years before throwing in the towel after its last go-around in March. "In a very real way, the loss of PAC...underscores the need for the Rhino even more," he says. "It's really important that the Chicagotheater scene have a festival of new works."
The Rhino is a living link to the city's once-thriving fringe-theater movement, which blossomed in the late '80s in Wicker Park and Bucktown but today appears to be in need of life-support.
"There were six small theaters within a six-block walking radius in Wicker Park, and a lot more companies than that," says O'Reilly, who cites some of the companies that fueled that earlier scene and collaborated to make the Rhino a multivenue enterprise: Curious Theatre Branch, Theatre Oobleck, Blue Ryder, Prop Thtr and Latino Chicago. "When the festival started, that was a big part of the tone of it—that you could walk from show to show." The former, legendary Wicker Park café Urbis Orbis was another epicenter of the scene, lending its space to many fringe artists who staged performances there.
O'Reilly has fond memories of those halcyon days, but he makes no bones about the nature of the neighborhood in that era. "North Avenue was so beat up. Part of the reason there were so many artists and rock bands [living there] is because renting space was so cheap," he says. "There were a lot of prostitutes on the street, a lot of heavy drug traffic. There were places for breakfast, but not for dinner because it was too scary at night. If you lived in Wicker Park, and most of us did, you made the events happen because there wasn't anything else going on."
When the scene lost steam around 1991, the Rhino became a nomad, moving first to the now-shuttered Lunar Cabaret on Lincoln Avenue, where Curious Theatre Branch also holed up for a time as resident company, and then to Rogers Park.
Although O'Reilly has survived jarring location shifts and a fluctuating breadth of programming, he still notes an ominous shift in the wind from the storefront scene of the last few years. "A lot of small theaters have closed; a lot of funding has been cut; people have less money to spend," O'Reilly says. "But even more alarming than that is that the audiences have shrunk."
There's also an inexorable, natural phenomenon to consider: These young Turks aren't so young anymore. Chicago's founding fringesters are starting to see their crowds age as well. "There's a deep, old, fierce community here that's interested in supporting each other, but they're also getting older," O'Reilly admits. "Most of them are in their forties, and they have full-time jobs and small children and aging parents and they're trying to own their homes—their concerns are a little different."
"Your definition of edgy has to change," Magnus says. "I look at videotape of myself when I was younger and I say, 'Give that woman a sedative.'" Her work then, she allows, was about "power" and taking over the stage. "Now I think edgy is about exploring what really is significant." At 45, she adds, "I realize I don't know everything anymore."
Likewise, O'Reilly, who's 52 and has three grown kids (including son Colm, an actor participating in this year's fest), admits he's had to learn how to accommodate older artists. A prime example: 2001's The Baby Show. Over a two-year period, 12 of O'Reilly's colleagues had babies. His guilt about missing their births urged him to produce a show with and about performers' children. "One of the things I least wanted to do was a piece about having children," recalls Magnus, who became a first-time mom three years ago. Eventually, she realized she wanted to create work that lacked "dumb, gag-on-me, Hallmark-card cliché." She ended up with CANT, which centered on "the terror of really loving someone" and the realization that you couldn't live without them. She'll reprise CANT, pairing it with a 2002 piece called What Abandon Meant: A Play with Futon, at this year's fest.
"It's split down the middle between people who are 20-year artists and people who are new," O'Reilly says of the programming, which veers from veterans like performance poet Cin Salach to writer-director Shawn Reddy's promising Magpies troupe.
O'Reilly isn't ready to pass the torch just yet, but as the fringe scene's first generation continues to shuffle off to parenthood in the 'burbs, the old salts holding down the fort are counting on reinforcements from such whippersnappers as Reddy who are happy to ride the Rhino for the first time.The Rhinoceros Theater Festival kicks off Wednesday 7 at Prop Thtr, 3504 N Elston Ave. For a full schedule and tickets, visit www.curioustheatrebranch.com.
See the city's most avant-garde artists in these recommended shows
More than 15 new works and numerous revivals will be presented at this year's festival. Here are four inspired entries we've got our eyes on:
Prop Thtr and Rasaka Theatre
The veterans of Prop Thtr team with the city's newest (and, to our knowledge, only) South Asian theater company to present the story of identity theft in modern-day India. Told in classical Eastern theatrical styles—including dance and story theater—it's not likely to look like any of the other storefront offerings on this year's bill. Multiple dates and times from Sept 8 through Oct 29.
The Book of Grendel
There's just no arguing with Theater Oobleck; any criticism you might level against this loose-cannon troupe of brainy punch-drunks will eventually be turned back on you. (The company's website quotes a callous review the Chicago Tribune gave it in the summer of 1988, and then follows it up by quoting that same paper's endorsement of Bush Sr. a few months later.) Its treatment of the legend of the monster Grendel, penned by Dan Telfer, promises to be a scrappy confection. Sept 9, 16, 23 & 30 and Oct 7, 14 & 21 at 7pm.
Wide Open Beaver Shot of My Heart, a Comedy with a Body Count
Sure, the pornographic title is just a metaphor, but it's also a small window into the world of maverick solo artist Ian Belknap. The longtime fringe performer taps his own family history for this show, a premise that would sound shaky if it weren't for his grandfather's unsolved murder and his hippie father's suicide. Belknap intends to get to the bottom of both. Sept 24 and Oct 1, 8, 15 & 22 at 9pm.
Radio vs. Theater: The Final Smackdown
Undeniably the festival's main event, in this head-to-head brawl, Curious Theatre granddaddy Beau O'Reilly and hometown NPR savant Ira Glass will debate the merits of the titular media. In a series of dueling monologues, Glass will defend his broadcasting posse while O'Reilly represents his thespians peeps. Oct 2 at 7pm.—Christopher Piatt