Jenny Magnus in The Willies
Jenny Magnus in The Willies Credit: Tamara Staples

The other night, as I was coming off my first weekend at the Rhinoceros Theater Festival—a six-week fringe performance extravaganza, produced annually for the last 25 years by Curious Theatre Branch—a friend asked me, “What does ‘fringe’ mean?” Good question. I flailed around for a while, trying to pull a response out of the seven shows I’d just seen, but eventually realized that I was giving examples rather than an answer. So I shut up—smilingly, though, as if to say, “And there you have it.”

It wasn’t until later that I figured out what I actually think, which is that theater requires two things to be fringe: perversity and community.

Now by “perversity,” I don’t mean the sexual kind. Not necessarily, anyway. I doubt that the folks at Rhinofest would object to an onstage expression of libidinal freedom as long as it didn’t get the whole event shut down. Nevertheless, the selections I’ve seen so far have been unprovocative that way. Even wholesome. Some of them—like the piece involving three preteens, or, for that matter, the piece by female-to-male transsexual Jamie Black—very much so.

No, perversity in this context is a comprehensive term for a way of life, thought, and art that may include a few or all of the following: idiosyncrasy, eccentricity, innovation, pixilation, confessionalism, bohemianism, Luddism, minimalism, DIYism, sincerity, irony, and defiance. It often expresses itself in a casual, homemade aesthetic involving lots and lots of cardboard. But that shouldn’t be taken as an indication of amateurism. (Not necessarily, anyway.) Some of the work here has been devised and performed by extraordinary talents with solid conventional resumés. They just seem to have a perverse streak in them.

And that’s where community comes in. Back in 1994 I wrote a Reader cover story about Curious founders Beau O’Reilly and Jenny Magnus, and what we called their “family of affinity”: a group of people with whom Magnus and O’Reilly shared living and artistic arrangements—which is to say, their lives. Incredibly, the two of them still stand at the center of a fringe scene that’s maintained its stability even as new members have moved in and old ones moved on. They’ve done a prodigious amount to protect and foster perversity in Chicago, for which we should all be thanking them.

And why is that? What makes perversity so valuable?

Well, for one thing, it can lead to strange, charming works like the one featuring the preteens. Adult playwright Jessica Peri Chalmers built the script for Let’s Copy Each Other So We Can Be Copycats around the “words and ideas of a 4- and 6-year-old,” with the result that we get phrases like, “You’re inappropriate,” in flurries. But we’re also allowed glimpses into the interior of the not-quite-socialized mind, with its surreal truths (“If you have boobies that means you have breasts, and if you have breasts you can fall in love”), self-interested imagination (Kid A: “I bought the horse with my own money.” Kid B: “No, you found it. It’s mine.”), and pitiless empiricism applied to a world where nobody’s parents are together anymore. I’m told the show was performed in New York with adult actors, but, perhaps counterintuitively, the use of children actually prevents a descent into kids-say-the-darnedest-things cutesiness.

Another unmitigated triumph of perversity is Barrie Cole‘s Elevator Tours. Its premise is the stuff of pure, mainstream rom-com: fresh from a traumatic divorce, Will camps out in the apartment of his lonely platonic friend Ruth. Naturally, we expect them to hem and haw and fall into each other’s arms. But Cole mounts a powerful attack on our expectations. Her script becomes a kind of microtragedy, about two people using every ounce of their intelligence, creativity, goofy comic sensibilities, and vast immaturity to defeat whatever seems to make most sense. It helps greatly that Will is played by Colm O’Reilly (a son of Beau), who’s very good at manifesting a sort of dynamic unassertiveness. And Carolyn Hoerdemann is fun to watch as Ruth—not to say refreshing, inasmuch as this is one time she didn’t get cast as a prostitute.

Four members of the storytelling troupe Boygirlboygirl present a bonbon apiece in Cremes & Jellies. But ironically, the only one that really goes down well is the one with the least appetizing title: Shit Where You Eat. Perhaps because Edward Thomas-Herrera’s black-comic narrative about an office meltdown is inherently extreme, he avoids the sometimes pathetic, sometimes arch self-consciousness that sours the other tales. Adam Webster’s The Dangling Conversation is similarly hit-and-miss. Owing way too much to the absurdists, his collection of seven short plays often sinks into annoyingly coy, insufficiently cunning wordplay. Still, a couple pieces succeed on the strength of charming performances. Jennifer Roehm, in particular, manages to make good use of the extremely brief opener, Boo.

Among the other shows I saw during Rhinofest’s first days: Realize Theater Group’s agit-prop effort America, Inc swings way too wide, trying to hit everything that’s wrong with the country and coming off looking paranoid instead. It’d be much better cut down from 60 minutes to five and performed at a demonstration. Jamie Black misses his own point in It’s My Penis and I’ll Cry If I Want To, introducing the subject of his sex change only to veer away from it with sentimental scenes in which natural-born men cope with manhood at different stages of their lives. And as for 4Tell’s Somewhere Under the Table, well, it’s perverse in its idiosyncratic use of touchy-feely personal histories, and it’s communal in its constant assertion of the good feeling among the four performers. But, wow, is it ever terrible. This bit of neo-hippie, wise-women foolishness should’ve been kept among family and friends.

Check our listings over the next weeks for more on Rhinofest shows.