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The rules have changed at Rhinofest

Has Chicago's longest-running fringe theater festival abandoned the fringe?

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Curious Theatre Branch touts its annual Rhinofest as "Chicago's longest-running fringe festival," and that's been true for the longest time. But in putting together edition number 27 this year, coartistic directors Beau O'Reilly and Jenny Magnus may have inadvertently broken the streak. Although it's hard—and maybe foolish—to set rules for an event as inherently various as a fringe festival, every one I've ever heard of is moderately to completely wide open. Some have juries, but many don't—including the original and biggest of them all, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

The 2016 Rhinofest is beyond juried. It's themed. And invitational too. In a neatly hermetic gesture, O'Reilly and Magnus decided to take Eugène Ionesco's Rhinoceros as their centerpiece: Curious itself is staging the absurdist black comedy—about a man named Berenger who feels no small amount of peer pressure when his neighbors start turning into leather-skinned, bellowing animals—and a select group of artists has been asked to contribute original works inspired by it. What we've got, in short, is a Rhinoceros Rhino.

Whether that means it's also a fringe Rhino is debatable. The invited participants do share a fringe aesthetic even if they got grandfathered into the fest in a manner decidedly unfringe. What's more, their shows are wildly disparate in quality and approach, per the true fringe tradition.

The Curious Rhinoceros was still in previews during opening weekend (we'll have a review of it next week), but I was able to see eight other entries. Of those, Rick Paul's The Apoocolocyntosis of the Future Peoples Commissar of the Enlightenment(Thu 7 PM) builds on the widely held view that Ionesco intended Rhinoceros as political burlesque, attacking those who leaped to fascism in Nazi Germany and occupied France. The title comes from a Senecan comedy lampooning Emperor Claudius's troubles in the afterlife, and Paul gives us what seems to be a despot slowly realizing that he's dead. Absurdism is overtaken by mystification, however, and the point gets so garbled that you end up wondering if Paul isn't expressing nostalgia for Kaiser Wilhelm.

The Runaways Lab Theatre's Jail(Fri 9 PM) is also politically inclined: a 40-minute visit with an inmate at Auburn Correctional Facility, the New York prison that pioneered solitary confinement. Cowriter Logan Breitbart is effectively sullen as the inmate, but Jail really doesn't say much other than that modern punitive policies are self-defeating. It's most powerful statement comes at the start, when Breitbart appears in a hood that at once recalls both the head of a rhino and the infamous photos from Abu Ghraib.

Ionesco moved the Billy Goat Experiment Theatre to create The Adventures of BB & Pepe, Episode 48: Funoceros Runoceros(Fri 7 PM), a "live radio drama" in which a girl and her talking dog have to foil a plot to turn humans into consumerist automatons. It's engaging until it grows too enamored of its cuteness and runs on. Karen Yates's Orangutan(Thu 8 PM), on the other hand, never stoops to engagement at all. A long whine about first-worlders demanding pristine beaches while orangutan habitats are being destroyed, it's entirely justified and utterly insufferable.

Things get better, though. Justin Botz counterbalances an awkward stage presence with a graceful wit in Shut Up, I'm Flying, a meditation on the difficulties of communication. The Ruckus's Exit the Queen (referencing Ionesco's Exit the King)(Sat 9 PM) neatly spoofs theatrical hierarchies, buoyed by Julie Cowden's irrepressible performance as an arrogant, manipulative, despondent stage director. Mark Chrisler's Endangered (Sat 7 PM) takes a funny conceit—a millennial man-child-turned-rhino goes on a rampage that can only be stopped by his unrequited high school crush—and pushes it until it explodes into an indictment of male privilege that doesn't spare even Chrisler.

Perhaps tellingly, the most profound Rhino show I saw was the farthest removed from Rhinoceros the play yet closest to it in spirit. That was Fatelessness(Sun 5 PM), from Theatre Y. Adapted from Imre Kertész's autobiographical Holocaust novel, the 75-minute piece consists of just two elements: (1) a first-person narrative, performed in voice-over, describing a Hungarian teenager's progress through the Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Zeitz camps, and (2) Benjamin Holliday Wardell doing yoga. Strange as that may sound, the combination expresses both the isolation and the tempering—the harrowing—the boy undergoes. Like Berenger, he's alone in a world of beasts.  v

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