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Rhinoceros Festival a massive celebration of stage works

Matt Rieger Judith Harding 'The Trips' by Jenny Magnus. | JuliWilliams photo

Matt Rieger and Judith Harding in "The Trips" by Jenny Magnus. | Julia Williams photo

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Rhinofest 2014, Jan. 17-Feb. 23. Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston.$15 or pay what you can at door or $12 in advance online. (773) 492-1287;

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Updated: January 17, 2014 7:42AM

First question: Why does Chicago’s longest running multi-arts fringe festival bear the name of a huge, thick-skinned, increasingly rare horned beast known for wallowing in the mud?

As it happens, Chicago’s Rhinoceros Festival, now celebrating its 25th season, came by its name via that Surrealist master, Salvador Dali, who once referred to something enormous in size as “rhinoceric.” And with more than 30 different performances staged at Rhinofest’s home base, Prop Theatre, between Jan. 17 and Feb. 23, “enormous” might well be an understatement, even if Jenny Magnus and Beau O’Reilly, the co-artistic directors of the Curious Theatre Branch (the company that has curated and produced the festival almost from the start) have come to take the whole thing more or less in stride these days.

“We do it each year, and then we swear off ever doing it again because it is such a deranged effort and so much work,” Magnus confessed. “But then we see all the thoughtful, beautiful pieces performed and we get that ‘Rhino bliss’ from realizing how much wonderful work is being made by people who are not driven by the marketplace. So we keep going.”

“The festival is really like a crazy art camp — an incredible immersive experience. You can feel it at our Curious Coffee Klatsch sessions [scheduled for noon on Jan. 25 and Feb. 8 and 15], where the artists and audience members get together over coffee and bagels to talk about what they’ve seen. It’s very different from a post-show talkback, and it’s an incredibly gratifying thing for mid-career artists who can sometimes feel as if they’re shouting into the void.”

Asked about the biggest changes to the Rhinofest over its quarter-century of existence, Magnus said: “Well, the Internet has changed everything in terms of reach. But in some ways the most amazing thing about the festival is how it has not changed. We ARE more financially stable than we used to be. We actually have some money in the bank both before and after the festival. Our budget is about $17,000, and we break even. And it’s a badge of honor that we charge no submission fees to the participants, so they bear only the production costs, and get 35 percent of the door gross.”

The festival received about 140 submissions this year, and Magnus says they now program performance slots from 2 p.m. through 11 p.m. “so we can pack our stages to the gills and try to mix and match programming in ways that expose audiences to things they might not ordinarily choose.”

Here is a closer look at just a few of the Rhinofest offerings:

— Jenny Magnus’ “The Willies,” presented by Sky Area Ten: Just one of six different works by the festival’s co-founder to be performed by as many different artists or companies during the final week of Rhinofest, this piece, directed by Karen Yates, is a collection of monologues about sleeplessness, guilt, anxiety and consequences, and it returns again and again to what we think about when we are alone, in the night. (Note: A new book of Magnus’ work, “Observations of an Orchestrated Catastrophe,” has just been published by Jackleg Press.)

—Derek L. Barton’s “The Extinction Project”: In this work that director Anna C. Bahow describes as “a lyrical and hilarious meditation on what it means to be extinct,” a lonely bachelor discovers a live dodo in his laundry hamper, a symphony conductor resurrects the American passenger pigeon with music, and a man returns to his native North Florida seeking an aging botanist and vanishing tree.

— Jessica Wright Buha’s “Kodachrome Telephone,” presented by Whiskey Rebellion: Inspired by the images found in a bag of 500 slides discovered at a second-hand store going out of business, this piece uses shadow puppetry, live action silhouette and obsolete technology to tell the story of a girl and her father on their journey to capture the world in 35 millimeters. “The slides pictured deserts, farm scenes, the Rocky Mountains, some gross medical images, and very few people,” said Buha.

— The Ruckus presents “Tell It & Speak It & Think It & Breathe It: Short Plays Inspired by Great Lyrics,” by Wren Graves, Steve Feffer, Daniel Caffrey, Ron Riekki, Joshua Davis, Allie Gruner and Jessica Reese: Taking the lyrics of The Mekons, Neko Case, Blur, The Chords, Neil Young, and Arcade Fire, six Chicago-based playwrights and up-and-coming young directors explore the landscapes that emerge when words explode out of their familiar contexts.

— “Interrogation”: Dance-theater artist Dmitri Peskov, a performer of high drama, gives us a man on a chair, an invisible interrogator, a set of questions and answers, a dance, a song, a poem, and “an angry outburst on why we are losing the war on terror.”

— “Difficulties: Short Plays by Strange People”: An example of the festival’s attempt to pair complementary pieces, this work of short scenes by local writers Sue Cargill and Julia Williams poses such questions as: Which chair will you buy when your lover has left you and taken all the furniture? Will the egomaniac chef’s insatiable need for responses to his food lead to complete mental collapse? And more.

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