Jenny Magnus in The Threepenny Opera, a concert version Credit: Jeffrey Bivens

Twenty-nine years ago, when Curious Theatre Branch cofounders Jenny Magnus and Beau O’Reilly hunkered down with a handful of struggling fringe artists to create the inaugural Rhinoceros Theater Festival, they insisted that submissions would be accepted only if they met at least two of three criteria: new, local, and good. Which meant new, local, bad work could get in. “And yes indeed, it did,” says Magnus.

Those selection criteria remain in place all these years later. So you may well catch a stink bomb or two anytime you go to the Rhino. But like much of the Chicago fringe theater scene, the Rhino welcomes the unconventional, the untried, the unmarketable. “Where else can you put up your eccentric, 35-minute whatever-it-is?,” says Magnus. “We love those. And if it fails, well, we’ll probably invite you back if you gave it your best shot.”

Madeline Whitesell and Diana Gardner in Triangle Collective's <i>A Well</i>
Madeline Whitesell and Diana Gardner in Triangle Collective’s A WellCredit: Tianshu Zhao

True to form, this year’s Rhino overflows with eccentricity. Triangle Collective, recently transplanted from downstate, offers A Well (Sun 1/21, 2 and 4 PM), a wordless piece about three people trapped at the bottom of a well just before a rainstorm. In Ripple (Sun 1/28 and 2/4, 1 PM), choreographer Shalaka Kulkarni uses classical Indian dance to examine issues of identity. The Official Theater Company of. ThyssenKrupp AG’s Direct My Woyzeck (Wed 2/7, 2/14, and 2/21, 7 PM) gives audience members a chance to helm Georg Büchner’s seminal modernist play. And for The Unbelievable Beauty of Being Human (Sun 2/11, 2 and 4 PM), InterPlay Chicago plans to assemble a multigenerational group of performers—including members of Wheeling High School’s Orchesis dance group—in the morning to invent a show for performance that afternoon.

The festival offers a good number of “legit” plays as well. Marking her third year in the Rhino, playwright Karen Fort presents Accidents (1/21-2/25: Sun 7 PM), a story of political and personal clashes in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade. In Lon West’s Heartbleed (Sat 2/2, 2/10, and 2/17, 2 PM), an odd young man without discernible motive takes over an old folks’ home. And Lee Peters’s The Institution (1/22-2/19: Mon 9 PM) reimagines Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with one gay and one straight couple.

There will also an art exhibit, “Zone Rats: The Afterlives of the Fabulous Killjoys,” curated by Vicki Walden and daughter Maci Greenberg, featuring international fan art inspired by characters in My Chemical Romance’s album Danger Days, as well as Saturday-morning workshops from CreativePush Collective, designed to help get your half-finished creative project closer to the finish line.

Jack the Dog features Carrie Biolo on icelophone.
Jack the Dog features Carrie Biolo on icelophone.Credit: Carrie & Rob Mohn

And as always, the Rhino presents a handful of musical offerings. Your two best bets: Curious Theatre Branch’s concert version of The Threepenny Opera (Sat 2/24, 9 PM), in a decidedly brash translation by the Nonsense Company’s Rick Burkhardt, and experimental duo Jack the Dog’s pair of concerts featuring Carrie Biolo on her self-made icelophone—a xylophone made of ice (Sat 2/3, 9 PM, and Sun 2/4, 7 PM). The festival opens with Full Moon Vaudeville, with special guests Ian Belknap, Diane Hamm, and Barrie Cole (Fri 1/12, 8 PM). v

Rhinoceros Theater Festival 1/13-2/25: Wed-Sun, times vary; see website, Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston, 773-539-7838,, $12 in advance, $15 at the door, or pay what you can.