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At Rhinofest, theater nobody sent for is a good thing

A weekend at Curious Theatre Branch's long-running fringe festival turns up both old favorites and potent new investigations.



Contrary to popular belief—at least insofar as the populace has any beliefs at all on the subject—the word "fringe" doesn't necessarily mean "experimental" when applied to the performing arts. The usage was coined in 1947 to refer to eight productions that sprang up unbidden at the fringes of Scotland's highbrow, highly selective Edinburgh International Festival. A better synonym might be "uninvited."

So welcome to the 2015 edition of Rhinofest, a seven-week convocation of shows nobody sent for.

It's nice to see them make themselves at home just the same. In more than two decades of curating the fest, Curious Theatre Branch founders Jenny Magnus and Beau O'Reilly have established artistic and genetic bloodlines that give the event the atmosphere of an unusually elaborate family reunion. Longtime associates like Barrie Cole and Paul Carr turn up regularly with new work. Magnus and O'Reilly themselves appear onstage as well as behind the box-office desk. This year O'Reilly's grandchild Zelma has taken on the role of an egg in a kids' show about healthy eating, while Magnus's daughter, Lena Luna Magnus Brün, performs opposite Zelma as a tomato.

The closeness has its downside, however. Some entries could use a dose of curatorial rigor, even if that means compromising the communal sense of esprit de corps. Perfect example: Carr's Viral Kitty, which goes as dead as Jerry Garcia for long stretches in a failed attempt to wring humor from the alleged conflict between smartphone-hypnotized millennials and 'shroom-dropping baby boomers. I'm not suggesting that Rhino betray its fringe heritage by turning invitational. Just that some shows (and their audiences) might benefit from a less forgiving set of outside eyes.

Cole's To Relax and Laugh at least has a heartbeat—and an amusing situation too, centered on an uptight woman named Sloan who seeks help from a therapist lacking not only credentials but sanity. The show is way too relentless in pushing its Zen-oid wisdom-of-madness message and way, way too enamored of whimsy as a method of putting that message over. Still, under Jen Moniz's direction, KellyAnn Corcoran's Sloan and Carolyn Hoerdemann's therapist have some lovely moments of communion.

Of the nine works I saw over the course of Rhinofest's first weekend (all of which have multiweek runs, so you needn't miss them), my hands-down favorite was Never-Landing, an "interactive investigation" into J.M. Barrie's classic, Peter Pan, devised by Laurel Cohen, Niki Dee, and Kathi Kaity and directed by Greg Allen.

As founder and former artistic director of the Neo-Futurists, Allen knows from interactive: the company's signature show, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, invites loads of audience participation, from the rolling of a die to determine the entrance fee to voting to decide which of a slew of short monologues will be performed on a given night. Never-Landing adopts some TMLMTBGB-esque gambits, most notably in handing each audience member a name tag that notes the number of days s/he's been alive.

But then it goes much further. Six civilians are pulled from their seats for a fairy-dust-enabled trip to Neverland, where—under the tutelage of Cohen, Dee, and Kaity—they make nests of blankets and settle in for a series of games that look simple enough at first yet accrue potent resonances as the piece proceeds. While joining in with the mock wedding, the rock-paper-scissors war, the funny monster drawings, the balancing-on-one-leg competition, the fortune telling, and, most particularly, the round of Musical Chairs, the onstage six become immersed in a meditation on time, mortality, and the meaning of growing up. And we go with them.

Another favorite was Ira S. Murfin's Our Theatrical Future: A Talk Between Hong Kong & Chicago (Re-Performed). Formally simple but conceptually tricky as only the brainchild of a theater PhD candidate can be, Murfin's contribution to the fest is basically an edited re-creation of a long Internet exchange he had in December with his friend and sometime collaborator Aaron Kahn. Kahn isn't present because he's currently living in Hong Kong, teaching yoga, so Murfin sits at a small table and reads his part of the conversation from cards while a guest artist (the shrewd Karen Yates when I attended) reads Kahn's.

The subject, according to Murfin, is "theatre they have made together and theatre they have not made together and theatre they might make together some day." And sure enough, these two urbane, fiercely intelligent thirtysomethings discuss an artistic partnership stretching back to their days as classmates at the Chicago Academy for the Arts. The really good stuff, though, relates to the complex dynamic between them as people—a dynamic they can't quite get their heads around despite their Olympic-level capacities for introspection. A dynamic paradoxically thrown into relief by Kahn's physical absence. Before Our Theatrical Future is done, Kahn has been transmuted into a kind of hipster Hamlet and Murfin into his ambivalent Horatio.

Beau O'Reilly's writings will be the subject of a retrospective, Welcome to Beautown, set for the final week of the fest. Until then there's The Beautown Monologues, a collection of three solos that do a good job of expressing the hard-bitten poetry of his voice, redolent of artists in the mid-20th-century sensitive-tough-guy mode, like John Fante and Nelson Algren.

A different actor delivers each monologue. The only real failure among them is Donald Didn't Do It, a cabbie's fever dream hobbled by Matt Test's lack of vocal range. Julie Cowden imparts a nice quotidian delicacy to A Week Later, 1989, the chronicle of a fraught phone conversation between a grown woman and her mother. But the masterpiece of the bunch is Fat Man in the Cafeteria, the confession of an alcoholic lesbian bearing witness to the unexpected love of her life. KellyAnn Corcoran—also of To Relax and Laugh—gives an affecting performance despite seeming unnecessarily confined to a chair throughout.

As for the other shows I saw last weekend: Though spiced up with intimations of kinky sex, Mariah McCarthy's The Foreplay Play is essentially a conventional drama with a conventional problem—a lack of building action. The Antitheatrical Prejudice reeks of avant-garde ambition but resolves down to an assortment of familiar subversions. Standin'n tha Gap is an odd throwback to 1960s powerful-black-womyn agitprop, only with white feminists as the main target. It shares the bill with Saul/Meredith, which is equally odd but easier to take. The tale of a heartbroken man and his houseplant, it suggests something by Jules Feiffer. Brooke Celeste is surprisingly strong as the plant.

And the kids' show? Titled The Beautiful World of Princess Broccoli, it suffers from Paradise Lost syndrome in that its devil, Lollipop Polly, is a whole lot more interesting than its God, Princess Broccoli, who only wants what's best for us and tells us lies about how much more delicious veggies are than sugary treats. Still, Zelma O'Reilly offers a wonderfully personable interpretation of an egg.

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