Action Spectacular
Action Spectacular

Now in its 21st year of presenting work from Chicago’s fringe theater and performance community, RhinoFest offers both short stands and long runs. Following are my reviews of the shows that opened the first weekend and will continue through the festival’s entire four weeks. All performances take place at Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston, 773-508-0666,, $12 in advance online, $15 or pay what you can at the door.

Action Spectacular I’m still waiting on Idris Goodwin. Going back over my reviews of his plays—across seven years—I find I’m pretty much always saying the same thing: cool idea, tantalizing execution, not there yet. Same with this short two-hander in which Jonathan Putnam plays Porter, a B-level but fanatically dedicated movie stunt coordinator, and Mark Handley plays his partner Blake. As the piece begins, we know that Blake’s had a serious accident in the line of duty; he seems out of it in conversation, yet every time Porter initiates a fight sequence, Blake performs flawlessly, as if the moves were somehow encoded in his DNA. What exactly happened to Blake, and what does Porter have to do with it? Goodwin looks into these questions, offering a Twilight Zone-esque punch-line answer. But there’s so much room for development. In the meantime, Putnam and Handley offer amusing, endearing performances.  Through 2/13: Sat 9 PM

Imposters and Political Suicide Mark Chrisler credits ELIZA and PARRY as his coauthors on Imposters, and their influence is undeniably apparent. ELIZA and PARRY were two “chatterbots”: computer programs, dating from 1966 and 1972, respectively, that could generate primitive forms of conversation. Their idiosyncrasies—including ELIZA’s tendency to turn everything into a question and PARRY’s preoccupation with Mob involvement in horse racing—gradually invade a dialogue between the tragic British computer genius Alan Turing and an interrogator called Nicolas Bourbaki (which is also the nom de plume of a group of mathematicians who specialized in set theory), raising the question of whether Turing and Bourbaki are human. The joke is played out before it’s over. But after a period of tedium, something else takes the joke’s place: a surprisingly vivid sense of anguish as Andrew Schoen’s Turing seems to go off program and, well, raise the question of whether he’s human. The second piece on the bill, by Chrisler alone, imagines a drunken confab between Alexei Kosygin and Lyndon Johnson on the eve of the Six-Day War. Sloppy and derivative in its pseudo-Strangelove satire, it’s not worth much.  Through 2/14: Sun 7 PM

Johnny Ten Bones Though the songs and final script of this musical were written by adults, the “characters and concepts” came from the Brain Surgeon Theater ensemble, which includes both grown-ups and children. That may be why this account of strange happenings in a small American town circa 1957 is often incoherent. But it may also be why it’s so compellingly fearless. In my experience, kids aren’t nearly as afraid as adults are of taking a story where it needs to go, and this one goes to the heart of a certain kind of darkness, situated inside a cosmically forlorn boy. It’s a plus that there’s a lot of brightness along the way, but don’t expect polish.  Through 2/14: Sat-Sun 2 PM

Little Boy Needs Ride and Notes to Molly The first of these two wry, surreal short works by Chris Bower makes you want to kill yourself. The second, to kill somebody else. Fortunately, even stronger than either impulse is the sense that it doesn’t matter what the fuck you do. The main body of Little Boy Needs Ride is an epistolary monologue in which a prepubescent suburban soccer kid—played with surprising believability by bearded, pudgy Bower—writes letters to his absent father and pissed-off mother in an attempt to maintain order while his world comes crashing down in an unusually absolute way. This is complemented by voice-overs offering the sort of soccer history Zidane might endorse. Notes to Molly is about a pair of functional alcoholics whose lethargic, sadomasochistic relationship suggests what The Sun Also Rises might’ve been like if Hemingway had never left Oak Park. The obsessive, nasty bleakness of it all is oddly compelling.  Through 2/12: Fri 9 PM

Subject Matter Created and Destroyed and I’m in a Small Space for a Reason I Don’t Understand As a performer, Matt Test has been a big asset to this year’s RhinoFest. His crazed petulance and Eraserhead ‘do play off well against Kate Teichman’s sly, sleepy deadpan in Chris Bower’s Notes to Molly (see above), and he and Teichman make a modified version of the same dynamic work nicely in Subject Matter Created and Destroyed—Matt Rieger’s brief, amusing contribution to this double bill, in which Teichman’s character tells how she wrote and trashed her magnum opus. But Test’s playwrighting is another matter. Designed to defeat audience expectations, his ostentatiously idiosyncratic “historical reenactment” of fictitious events I Am in a Small Space for a Reason I Don’t Understand simply ended up trying my patience instead.  Through 2/13: Sat 7 PM

Two Story Animal Beau O’Reilly is at once RhinoFest’s eminence grise and the master of its revels, its satyr and elder statesman—and this show reflects his peculiar double status. In the first half, he tells an autobiographical tale called “Keith and Anna and Boriley,” chronicling the destructive, booze-and-drugs-stoked relationship among the title characters: a high-idling would-be musician, a beautiful teenaged alcoholic, and O’Reilly at what appears to have been a particularly lost phase in his life. Written about 25 years ago, when O’Reilly says the events in the story took place, the text falls too easily at times into the anachronistic beat tropes of which O’Reilly is a little too fond. But it also offers a beautiful simplicity and a mood of dry, unsentimental rue. O’Reilly’s gray-headed presence adds gravity: he survived to tell the tale. The second half is given over to other performers. On the day I was there, tenderhearted curmudgeon Barrie Cole told three stories. The other guests are Vickie Walden and Jeff Flodin (1/30-1/31), Cecilie O’Reilly (2/6-2/7), and Theater Oobleck’s David Isaacson (2/13-2/14).  Through 2/14: Sat-Sun 2 PM