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ACT II: A second look at area stages — Rhinofest blows its horn

'Lizzie Borden is Smashing (And Other Fairy Tales)'

"Lizzie Borden is Smashing (And Other Fairy Tales)"

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When: Through Feb.17

Where: Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston

Tickets: $15 (or pay what you can at door); $12 (in advance online)

Info: (773) 492-1286;

Updated: January 13, 2013 2:41AM

The name came courtesy of Salvador Dali, granddaddy of the Surrealists.

“Dali used the term ‘rhino’ to describe a big event or big party, so when we started the Rhinoceros Theater Festival 24 years ago, Jenny Magnus and I borrowed the expression from him,” explained Beau O’Reilly, a co-founder, with Magnus, of the Curious Theatre Branch, which curates and produces Rhinofest.

The party, as it turned out, was not just big, but enduring. The longest-running multi-arts fringe festival in Chicago, the Rhinofest — which features mostly new and experimental works in theater and performance from both Chicago companies and national artists — also prides itself on being unique among national fringe festivals in two regards. First, artists are never charged a fee to participate, and second, each year’s programs are individually curated rather than selected on a lottery basis.

“We manage to do the whole thing on a budget of about $10,000, even paying a small salary to our website designer and tech person,” said O’Reilly, noting that the festival serves as Curious Theatre’s principal program for outreach and new play development. “And we attract an interesting audience — from the fiercely loyal devotees of new work who often are in their 40s and 50s, to those interested in the visual arts, music and dance as much as theater, to many young writers and other post-college types trying to work in the theater.”

As for selecting the shows, O’Reilly noted: “Some people simply apply, some artists we invite back, and some come on recommendations, most recently through the National New Play Network, which has resulted in a greater number of out-of-towners getting involved. The essential criteria is that the piece is not too long, since we present several works each night, and that it doesn’t require much technical support.”

One of the more intriguing-sounding shows among this year’s nearly three dozen offerings is Sue Cargill’s “Lizzie Borden Is Smashing (And Other Fairy Tales),” directed by Jayita Bhattacharya. It takes the form of eccentric poems that retell eight classic fairy tales (from “Sleeping Beauty” and “Cinderella” to “The Little Match Girl” and more), plus a very unusual reworking of the title tale about the American woman tried and acquitted in the 1892 ax murders of her father and stepmother in Fall River, Mass.

“The Rhinofest was really custom-made for people like me,” said Bhattacharya, who moved to Chicago in 2004 to do graduate study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “I was 22, just out of college — a young artist interested in trying different things in the theater, and not necessarily working on standard plays. The Rhino became such an amazing home for that, allowing me to collaborate, discuss and interact with people who’d been working in theater here for three decades.”

It was O’Reilly who first introduced Bhattacharya to Cargill in 2007, when she was an actor in one of his plays. Initially an actress and playwright, Cargill turned to graphic novels, but now has returned to the theater.

“Sue has such a dark, wry sense of humor, and she takes such a joy in language,” said Bhattacharya, who noted that her cast includes two adult performers (Debbie Halstead and Naomi Washer), as well as 11-year-old Lena Luna Magnus Brun, daughter of Jenny Magnus and Stefan Brun (a co-founder of Prop Thtr).

Among the many other offerings in the festival are:

♦ “All the Ways to Hidey Hole: Madras Parables,” written and performed by Magnus and O’Reilly. The latest entry in the series of duets the two friends have devised over 26 years of collaboration, it finds them “in their 50s now, with all the ways they have learned to negotiate with each other thrown in the wash and hung out to dry.”

♦ “Flight of the Blue Lizard” and “Just an Ordinary Day,” a Brain Surgeon Theater production. These two mini-musicals, originally conceived and performed by kids, now get a new life with professional actors, singers, dancers and designers. Written by the ensemble (with Carrie Grace), the work is directed by Gwen Tulin.

♦ “Tales Told by an Idiot,” written, directed and performed by dancer-choreographer-actor Dmitri Peskov. This one-man show draws on several short stories involving a political prisoner, an old man in a box, a dead poet, a surreal date and two men exploring a unique relationship, and it includes poetry by Shakespeare, W. H. Auden, Giuseppe Ungaretti and Peskov.

♦ “Terminal Ferocity,” a personal essay about anger and aging written & performed by Ian Belknap (Feb. 16 only), finds the author, approaching 50, growing more furious rather than less and wondering why he isn’t becoming “more mellow with age.”

NOTE: For a full schedule of the festival’s rotating rep, visit

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