The Rhinoceros Theatre Festival is an odd institution. When it was started 20 years ago, the International Theatre Festival of Chicago was still going strong; but the ITFC shut down in 1994, so the Rhino Fest has spent three quarters of its life as a fringe event in a city lacking the grand fete. Think of a beard without a chin. And where, say, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe attracts productions from all over the world, the Rhino’s impulse is expressly nativist: only local artists present work. Indeed, it can seem sometimes as if only local artists watch the work, as well. The other night, when a Rhino show at the Viaduct Theater ended, I was the only one in the audience who got up to leave. Everybody-everybody-else there was apparently waiting to greet their friends in the cast.     This isn’t even approximately a healthy set of circumstances. The Rhino Fest’s grassroots Chicagocentrism would make a lot more sense if it were balanced by the combination of global expansiveness and careful selectivity that characterized the ITFC.

Any city with pretensions to theatrical sophistication-let alone importance-must have a major festival. It’s just that simple. Decent festivals don’t merely increase a city’s prestige, they increase the competence of its audiences and artists. When I’ve asked locally bred actors and directors about their influences, those lucky enough to have attended the International Theatre Festival of Chicago invariably bring up shows and companies they saw there, from England, Ireland, France, Spain, Israel, Greece, and who knows where else. As important as it is, a program like Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s World’s Stages series can’t fill the gap that was left when the ITFC folded in 1994, only point to it.