All the Ways to Hidey Hole: Madras Parables
All the Ways to Hidey Hole: Madras Parables Credit: Curious Theatre Branch

The Rhinoceros Theater Festival is 24 years old now, which means it should be totally immersed in social media, internships, and postromantic hookups a la Girls. Instead this brainchild of the Curious Theatre Branch is still putting on small-scale, low-budget, original, live works—31 of them this time around—by members of the Chicago’s apparently burgeoning fringe.

The Reader went to Rhinofest’s opening weekend, and here’s what we saw. We’ll be going back again, so check with us for reviews of shows opening later in the fest’s six-week run.

All the Ways to Hidey Hole: Madras Parables
Jenny Magnus and Beau O’Reilly have written and performed a handful of “Madras Parables” over the course of 23 years, reporting on their rocky, productive collaboration through skewed personal monologues, wry philosophical musings, and cunning cabaret songs. In their new, exquisitely candid, hour-long installment, the poker-faced clowns hold forth on a stage that’s empty except for garbage bags and a single piece of paper. They rarely raise their voices or indulge their characteristic stage mannerisms. Indeed, they’re so disarmingly guileless that even their strangest bits—O’Reilly visited by Mother Teresa’s ghost during an acupuncture session, Magnus singing a vacuous song as a placeholder for the important one she’s unlikely ever to write—come across as everyday anecdotes. Rarely do the sublime, the ridiculous, and the matter-of-fact merge so fruitfully.
Justin Hayford
Through 2/16: Fri 9 PM, Sat 7 PM.

Breath Boxes
Two of the three short works comprising the Billy Goat Experiment Theatre Company’s “evening of things” display a flair for the morbid. The third is just inscrutable. The show opens with a dirgelike minimusical in which six performers use toy instruments and rag-doll marionettes to tell a sad, strange tale involving infanticide. Next we meet the singing, dancing Haynes Sisters, one of whom is a parasitic twin growing out of the other’s right shoulder. These pieces are odd but intriguing. Then comes Sonju . . . Split, which features a shadow-puppet vignette of a woman watering a garden, childlike pen-and-ink drawings, felt cutouts of plants and animals, an oversize mannequin, and video projections of a woman’s face—all serving a plot I couldn’t make heads or tails of. Zac Thompson
Through 2/15: Fri 9 PM.

The Carter Family Family Show Country music’s pioneering Carter Family is the subject of this interesting but slight offering from the Neo-Futurists. In three solo pieces, Chloe Johnston, Emmy Bean, and Joe Dempsey take turns introducing us to each of the band’s original members—restless AP; his wife, Sara; and sensible sister-in-law Maybelle. Relying mostly on third-person narration, the writer-performers cover the trio’s first recording session, Sara’s affair with one of AP’s cousins, and the band’s highly influential radio broadcasts during the 1930s. The show makes a strong case for the Carters’ talent and cultural significance, but its somber, reverent tone keeps them at a remove from us. A two-minute audio cameo by fast-living yodeler Jimmie Rodgers has more oomph than the show’s other 68 minutes combined.
Zac Thompson
Through 2/15: Fri 7 PM.

Daughter Playwright

Paul William Brennan chose to write from the vantage point of a 79-year-old woman, and the result is a bloodless two-hander. Hospitalized and on the point of death, the woman is being interviewed by an unaccountably hostile student who asks bad questions—and gets bad answers. Of course, the responsibility for her vague philosophical responses falls on Brennan’s shoulders. A flowery, dreamy description of a young husband’s death lacks context and communicates nothing. A claim that ten-year-olds are incapable of understanding death is a cop-out. In his 1884 essay “The Art of Fiction,” Henry James famously touted “the power to guess the unseen from the seen” and advised, “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” Much is lost here, and God is in the details.
Laura Molzahn Through 2/17: Sun 5 PM.

Flight of the Blue Lizard/Just an Ordinary Day Every previous Brain Surgeon Theater production I’ve seen was created and performed by a mixed group of child and adult artists. That’s not how it worked with the two short musicals BST has brought to Rhinofest 2013. Though kids were involved in the development process, the casts consist of nothing but grown-ups—or at least, of people who can be considered fully grown. That introduces an element of condescension that wasn’t present in the other shows: the actors here sometimes play against the material, treating it as kitsch. Lord knows there’s plenty to play against. The Flight of the Blue Lizard is a pseudoecological fable about the need to protect imaginary creatures like unicorns from the depredations of greedy corporate types. Just an Ordinary Day—well, all I know for sure is that it involves aliens and everybody rocks out at the end. The ribbing is good-natured, and as with other BST pieces, you can still have a sweet time. But something’s been lost. Tony Adler Through 2/11: Mon 7 PM.

Lizzie Borden is Smashing (and Other Fairy Tales) Poet Sue Cargill draws on Galway Kinnell, Sylvia Plath, Roald Dahl, and others for her eclectic and eccentric retellings of nine classic fairy tales. Backed by Matt Test—alternately somber and tongue-in-cheek on piano and musical saw—Charles Perault’s “Bluebeard” gets a rhythmic makeover, Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl” becomes a more-than-usually unsettling depiction of a tot in peril, and “The Red Shoes” features visually quirky choreography for feet. Lacking an overarching dramatic arc, Jayita Bhattacharya’s production feels like a trifle, and it probably is. But it gets a boost from child actress Lena Luna Magnus Brün, whose quiet, mature severity suggests that she was ripped straight out of a Wes Anderson film. Dan Jakes Through 2/2: Sat 2 PM.

Mantuary/Hot Water Director Rick Paul did a great service for the Chicago theater community at last year’s Rhinofest, resurrecting the late, lamented Sweetback Productions (Scarrie! The Musical, The Birds) for the purpose of staging a pair of what turned out to be well-received one-acts. This year he’s working his magic again. Hot Water is a campy adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s singularly incomprehensible 1935 short story—a noir murder mystery about a jaded movie starlet and her hard-boiled bodyguard. Mantuary is a cagey one-act by New Orleans playwright RJ Tsarov, in which tightly wound Lise flees her oppressive marriage by living in a cave that may actually be her spare bedroom. Both shows are stylishly designed, economically staged, and extravagantly acted. At 25 minutes apiece, they could be improved only by being expanded to full length. Justin Hayford Through 2/15: Fri 7 PM.

No Bees in Bridgeport This fantasia by veteran writer-performer Kestutis Nakas is firmly rooted in white-ethnic life on the old (and also the new) south side. Imagined as the keynote address at a Beekeepers’ Society convention, Nakas’s 45-minute monologue swiftly limns the speaker—a well-meaning middle-aged beekeeper—as well as his family, neighbors, alderman, and surprise political “chinaman.” Nakas really does have a hive in his Bridgeport backyard, but here he takes exhilarating leaps into tall tales of disaster, magical renewal, and heroism. A poetic description of the Chicago stockyards transformed is especially visionary. Nakas’s deceptively casual manner and expert impersonations yield deft humor and pathos, sometimes simultaneously. The evening opens with two short pieces: Sadie Rose Glaspey’s intriguing song cycle Redline Rider and Margaret Cook and Karen Vance’s Failing Ceramics. Laura Molzahn Through 2/3: Sun 7 PM.

Repeating Ourselves Realize Theatre Group found four writers, gave them all the same snippet of over-the-top emotionally charged dialogue, and asked each of them to build a scene around it. Sounds like an undergraduate writing-class assignment—and so, for the most part, do the resulting scenes, all directed by Taryn Smith. A petulant man argues with the petulant voice of God, two students have a bitter argument about something or other on a park bench, etc. Only one contribution generates characters strong enough to swallow the assigned snippet whole: Christian Anderson’s piece about a late-night argument between a cop and her brother, who’s driven onto her lawn blind drunk. But even there, the conceit comes across as an obstacle to be negotiated rather than a constraint that adds meaning or clarity. Keith Griffith Through 2/16: Sat 7 PM.