Rhinoceros Theater Festival

at the Lunar Cabaret and Full Moon Cafe and the Famous Door Theatre Company

By Jack Helbig

Julie Laffin inaugurated this year’s Rhino Fest, the seventh in six years (there were two in ’95), with a beautiful, mildly diverting four-hour-plus performance, Over, in which she lay prone on the sidewalk in front of the festival’s unofficial home base, the Lunar Cabaret and Full Moon Cafe, wearing one of her specially made evening gowns: a bloodred number with an insanely long train that stretched up to the Lunar Cabaret facade, forming a velvet curtain everyone had to pass under to reach the other festival shows. The title refers not only to Laffin’s magnificent train, which hangs over our heads, but to a continuously running tape of phrases containing the word “over”: “I was overeating, oversleeping, and oversexed….I was fucked over, picked over, passed over” and so on.

But Over could also be taken as a subtle message to all Rhino Fest audiences that, once you finished viewing the extraordinary spectacle of Laffin’s piece and stepped into the Lunar Cabaret, your evening of polished, edgy, thoughtful theatrical innovation was over. Inside, audiences were in for show after show of the same old fringe stuff, hastily created, sloppily presented, and lavishly praised by the artists’ friends.

Not that I want to discourage theater festivals in general or the Rhino Festival in particular. It’s just that this year’s fest reminds me of last year’s very uneven Abbie Hoffman Died for Our Sins festival or the low points of the now-defunct Chicago International Theater Festival. It’s a tricky business to toss together lots of shows to fill out an evening when few are in themselves good enough to entertain an audience of strangers or to generate the word of mouth needed to attract audiences.

In fact, of the seven plays and performance pieces I saw on the Rhino’s first weekend, only Famous Door’s mostly great production of Vaclav Havel’s The Increased Difficulty of Concentration would have passed muster if the Rhino were truly a festival of off-off-Loop theater’s best and brightest. But then Famous Door has the dual advantage of an intelligent, witty script and of being–well, famous for bringing to life intelligent, witty scripts.

Written in that epochal year 1968, Havel’s angry absurdist farce concerns a womanizing but otherwise colorless intellectual at work on a gassy, ponderous tome on happiness (central thesis: that happiness is a precondition for unhappiness). He’s being driven crazy by an insanely complicated love life and a quartet of technocrats who’ve forced their way into his home and begun taking all kinds of arcane measurements–of the size of his sheets, the humidity in his walls, the kinds of fruit in his kitchen–at the behest of a faceless, all-powerful bureaucracy “up there.”

It’s not hard to see why jittery Czech officials banned this play (along with the rest of Havel’s oeuvre) after the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia. Though the play is set in 1928, it is clearly just as much about the stuffy, paranoid world of the Eastern Bloc ruling elite–utopian socialism with an all-too-human face–as Havel’s great satire of 1965, The Memorandum. Like that play (in which it’s decreed that all business will now be conducted in a language created by the state to improve efficiency), The Increased Difficulty of Concentration offers a world populated by nitwit scientists, gangster public officials, and lazy office workers, all of whom–even Havel’s hero, Dr. Huml–continually sacrifice the greater good to their own petty pleasures.

What makes Havel’s play more than just another witty satire about a bankrupt social system is the work’s extraordinary cubist structure. Rather than tell his story like a farce–Dr. Huml cheats on wife, cheats on mistress, is questioned by authorities, and is discovered in various compromising situations by wife, mistress, and said authorities–Havel shatters his play into tiny pieces, then rearranges them in an apparently random order. Again and again we see the outcome of an event long before we see the event itself. Dr. Huml’s successful seduction of his secretary, for example, precedes the scenes in which he makes his initial advances, all of which she resists. A mind-bending way to tell a story, but it makes perfectly clear the unnatural world Havel’s characters inhabit and how that world has disordered Havel’s hero.

Maureen Ryan’s production more or less successfully re-creates Havel’s crazy universe, and the performances mostly meet Famous Door’s standards; Kati Brazda leads the parade with her wonderful passive-aggressive zaftig hausfrau, Vlasta Huml. Maggie MacMillan too deserves note as the sex-starved, hyperintellectual intelligence officer Dr. Belcar, the kind of person who sublimates her libidinal energy in probing the lives of her subjects.

Mind you, the show isn’t perfect. As Dr. Huml, Benjamin Werling–who easily spends 98 percent of the play onstage–only seems about 75 percent there, and he’s particularly unconvincing when he tries to convey how emotionally dead the doctor is. I could have done without Robert G. Smith’s pretty but gratuitous Mondrian set as well: even the severe, primary-colored furniture looks like it was designed by Mondrian. The neat, anal design suggests a show critical of totalitarianism because it’s antiseptic, when in fact Havel criticizes the underlying chaos. Still, compared to everything else I saw at the Rhino Fest, the kinda cheap-looking Famous Door production is a Goodman big-budget extravaganza.

Back at the Lunar Cabaret, David Kodeski’s revival of his solo show David Kodeski’s True Life Tales: Doris, first performed earlier this year at the Neo-Futurarium, is the best thing going. He plays Doris, a woman in her 90s who recounts her life from her Maine childhood to the present, apparently basing the show on interviews he conducted with a real-life Doris. Performing in a style that’s the very antithesis of drag–sans wig, falsetto, and stereotyped feminine gestures–Kodeski is nevertheless remarkably affecting. But even this piece was marred by the sloppiness and lack of focus that bedeviled most of the other Lunar Cabaret shows I saw: an essential projector wasn’t set up properly, the laid-back performance style sometimes looked like no style at all, and the ending didn’t really conclude the piece.

Such carelessness also undermined Danny Thompson’s roughly performed, occasionally witty solo show The History of Theatre Theater (sic) in America. Of course, much of the charm of his work lies in the way this sweet, sloppy, boyish man stutters and futzes his way through it. This time he tells us the story of American theater from colonial times to the present using all sorts of found objects as “characters.” George Washington, for example, is played by a one-dollar bill, Jefferson by a two-dollar bill, and Lincoln by a fiver. Still, an hour of this sometimes inspired silliness by Danny & His Things is a little too much of a good thing. The 90-minute show would have been twice as nice at half the length.

I have no idea how long the benighted stage adaptation of Nelson Algren’s genre-defying prose-poem-essay Chicago: City on the Make ran, but it felt like I was in that theater for hours, watching spoken-word artist Larry Jones and bassist Aki Schulz ruin Algren’s work. I didn’t dare look at my watch–there’s nothing more depressing during bad theater than watching the slow seconds tick away. None of the beauty of Algren’s carefully written tough-guy prose came through in Jones’s tin-eared recitation: he read the whole piece–the sweet, quiet passages as well as the angry, sarcastic ones–in the same bellow people usually reserve for temper tantrums. Schulz’s improvisational playing was considerably more successful, though again and again the beauty of his music was overshadowed by the guy on his left reading so artlessly from a sheaf of papers.

Two days later, in the middle of Warren Leming’s A Theory of Chaos, I had a flashback to Chicago: City on the Make. Once again I was trapped in a theater watching a group of actors, this time a man and three women, going through the motions of a show accompanied by a musician, this time a clarinetist. Supposedly a “theatrical exploration of the life and ideas of [German intellectual Walter] Benjamin,” this hour-long exercise in not very gracefully executed dance theater was beyond me. True, early on the actors do recite a few choice lines from Benjamin’s work. And later they execute their strange, synchronized movements in front of a gigantic screen showing selections from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will: Benjamin died fleeing the Nazis, get it? But really, Leming et al, this baffling piece could as easily be exploring the work of Nazi hero Friedrich Nietzsche or Nazi-friendly Martin Heidegger–or even, if you changed the film to the Mickey Mouse cartoon Steamboat Willie, of crypto-fascist Walt Disney. It would still make as much (or as little) sense.

Everyone doing original work at the Rhino Festival could learn a thing or two from Jenny and Bryn Magnus about making theater and about showmanship. The two very short one-acts that make up the first part of Hyperbolic Gangland are so carefully written by Bryn Magnus, gracefully directed by Jenny Magnus, and finely acted, by Bryn Magnus and Paul Tamney, they put to shame everything else I saw at the Lunar Cabaret. Of course the two plays together are only about 30 minutes long. But this is where the showmanship comes in: it takes someone with poise, charm, confidence, and gall–that is, someone with more than a touch of P.T. Barnum about him or her–to serve up two tiny little pieces of theater and pass them off as two-thirds of a full show.

Unfortunately, the last third of Hyperbolic Gangland is more in keeping with the careless in-crowd mentality of too much of this year’s Rhino: Bryn Magnus sits alone onstage reading from a cyberpunk short story he’s been working on. The story is written in a beautiful notebook with a marbleized cover–which unfortunately recalls (I assume unintentionally) Ernie Kovacs’s Percy Dovetonsils.

A nice notebook cover doesn’t conceal the fact that this story needs much more work before it’s fit for public consumption. Then again the same could be said for much of what I saw at the Rhino this year. And yet here it is, set before the paying public.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo from “Over”, by C. DiThomas; photo from “A Theory of Chaos”.