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Rhinoceros Theater Festival 

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The Curious Theatre Branch's ambitious yearly showcase of experimental theater, performance, and music from Chicago's fringe began as part of the Bucktown Arts Fest. Over the years it's mushroomed from a neighborhood happening to an event of citywide significance--especially now that it's been taken under the wing of the Department of Cultural Affairs as part of a laudable effort to bring an off-off-Loop sensibility to Chicago's downtown theater district.

Taking its name from surrealist painter Salvador Dali's use of the term "rhinocerontic" (it means real big), the 14th annual Rhinoceros Theater Festival runs through October 26. Performances take place at the Curious Theatre Branch, 7001 N. Glenwood; No Exit Cafe, 6970 N. Glenwood; and the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington. Admission is $12 or "pay what you can"; for information and reservations, call 773-274-6660.

Following is the schedule through September 25; a complete schedule is available online at www.chicagoreader.com.

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 18

The Casual Family

This three-person ensemble presents four short plays with music: Airland, by Adam Vine; Aviary, by Nora Jean Lange; and Tuning In to the Power of Active Listening and Understanding Shyness, by Brian Torrey Scott. "It's difficult to say which of the plays is hardest to take. They all indulge in gratuitous mystification: nonsensical language, unmotivated interactions, unexplained premises, relationships and situations rendered incomprehensible by the careful elision of crucial information. . . . The point of all four plays . . . may be missed communication on a habitual, societal level, and the isolation that results from it. Certainly that was the point made by the old absurdist playwrights the Casual Family so urgently attempts to emulate here. Neither Scott, nor Vine, nor . . . Lange has the chops at this point to make good on that attempt," says Reader critic Tony Adler. Curious Theatre Branch, 7 PM.

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 19

Sidewalk Etiquette

Idris Goodwin's "humorous ensemble drama," set in a blue-collar neighborhood in a midwestern city, is performed by the Hermit theater group. "Sidewalk Etiquette . . . strives toward a gritty sort of reality with its population of street people, small-time merchants, rappers, and drifters. Although it affects one or two mildly surreal contrivances, this tale of yuppie gentrification run amok is sincere urban portraiture with a social point to make. Trouble is, that social point is undercut by Goodwin's timid narrative," says Reader critic Tony Adler. Curious Theatre Branch, 7 PM.

The Jazzterpiece

See Critic's Choice. No Exit Cafe, 7:30 PM.

The Wolf Hunt

Matt Wilson's drama concerns an adopted man's attempt to track down his birth family. "The Wolf Hunt is as spare and sharp as it can be. It tells its rather O. Henry-ish story . . . in a few well-shaped scenes covering no more than 45 minutes. The narrative is hokey. . . . But the craft and conviction of The Wolf Hunt--together with a competent group of actors, directed by Wilson and Daniel Taube--make it possible to suspend skepticism and accept the truth of things as they're told," says Reader critic Tony Adler. Curious Theatre Branch, 9 PM.

S.A.L.T.

See review in this section. No Exit Cafe, 9:30 PM.

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 20

My Name Is Mudd

This Curious Theatre Branch production, written and directed by Shawn Prakash Reddy, takes aim at Shakespearean actor John Wilkes Booth's murder of Abraham Lincoln. "Questions about historiography undergird . . . Reddy's formulation of the events surrounding . . . Lincoln's assassination. And for many playwrights, the postmodern hall of mirrors created by asking slippery questions about authority and knowledge would be enough. But Reddy, who also directs, clearly wants to tease, entertain, and provoke.

. . . Toward that end he's fabricated a two-hour work, played by himself and five other actors, that's both a lecture and a sketch-comedy revue, a historical reenactment and a send-up of reenactments. The resulting show should have been daring and hilarious and intellectually breathtaking. But the night I caught My Name Is Mudd, the comedy often seemed forced, the insights sophomoric, and the writing sloppy and in need of a good edit. These problems might have been the result of uneven performances," says Reader critic Jack Helbig. Curious Theatre Branch, 7 PM.

Vato Maldito

This Prop Thtr production about a Latino safecracker is adapted from the memoirs of Johnny "Bubbles" Gallegos by Gallegos's nephews Raoul and Scott Vehill (Scott Vehill codirects with Stefan Brun). No Exit Cafe, 7:30 PM.

I Don't Drink and I'll Never Have Sex in This Town Again

Neo-Futurist founder Greg Allen's solo piece I Don't Drink employs "one man, one glass, one candle, one audience, and lots and lots of water." The double bill also features improv notable Abby Schachner in her comic one-woman show I'll Never Have Sex in This Town Again. Curious Theatre Branch, 9 PM.

S.A.L.T.

See review in this section. No Exit Cafe, 9:30 PM.

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 21

Caravan

The Still Point Theater Collective performs Arab-American poet Melysha Sargis Meraee's playwriting debut--the story of six Palestinian women who immigrate to Chicago. "The issues [Meraee addresses] are mundane but still potentially explosive: at the center of the play is a whispered accusation of adultery. Structured as a series of highly digressive conversations, Meraee's script accentuates the ordinariness of her story. Director Jenny Magnus shows considerable sensitivity to the material. In her production small gestures . . . speak volumes, a quality enhanced by the strong, subtle ensemble. . . . But there's a downside to Meraee's unembellished close-up. Much of the play feels more like a transcript than a theatrical work--some judicious editing would have increased the tale's dramatic power," says Reader critic Jack Helbig. Curious Theatre Branch, 3 PM.

I Don't Drink and I'll Never Have Sex in This Town Again

See listing for 9 PM Saturday, September 20. Curious Theatre Branch, 7 PM.

Red Circle Prayers, Trap Door Dream Dogs, and Love Gandhi

"The three one-acts on this bill all concern characters trying to figure out who they are. The most opaque and unconventional, Red Circle Prayers, is a semiautobiographical piece written and performed by Robin Cline and Eiren Caffall. Two women travel through the Dakotas and Wyoming trying to find some way to order what Cline calls their 'inner chaos.' We never find out what that means, nor do we learn much about Cline or Caffall (who never speaks but provides musical accompaniment). Instead Cline fills up her half hour onstage with minilectures on coal miners, mid-70s therapy techniques, early language acquisition, and the effect of Hollywood on tourism. Kat McJimsey--performing a one-woman play, Trap Door Dream Dogs, adapted from Teresa Weed's short story--does a much better job than Cline at getting at her piece's emotional heart, as a repressed farmer's daughter slowly finds herself. Then again, Weed's story is much more compelling, if decidedly long. Love Gandhi, written and directed by Heidi Broadhead, would also benefit from editing. Right now it's two plays awkwardly spliced together: a comical look at peace activism and a serious examination of a relationship foundering on the two eternal issues, communication and commitment. Elizabeth Graettinger and Tim Smith, winning as the central couple, make it easy to forgive the play's structural flaws," says Reader critic Jack Helbig. No Exit Cafe, 7:30 PM.

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 22

Dorchen & Isaacson's Medicine Show

"Theater Oobleck has a habit of tackling weighty subjects: corporate politics, capitalism, the Iraq war, Faust, Freud, fractal geometry. But Oobleck cofounders Jeff Dorchen and David Isaacson spend an evening just playing during [this] fully improvised 'failed talk show,' . . . a spoof of long-form improv [that's] also a delightful 90-minute platform for two creative minds waxing ridiculous. . . . While Medicine Show is self-consciously superficial, Dorchen and Isaacson work overtime to interweave their improvisatory threads, ingeniously packing each scene with references to every other scene. The resulting fanciful network of surrealism is intricate enough to provide a sense of wholeness," says Reader critic Justin Hayford. Curious Theatre Branch, 7 PM.

Prufrock

Cavan P.M. Hallman's poetic theater piece draws on T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and other literary sources. "Still measuring out his life with coffee spoons and daring to eat a peach, . . . Eliot's passive survivor finds himself in colorful company in . . . Hallman's 50-minute fantasia. Rearranging if not deconstructing the sardonic 'love song' (we actually hear what the women who come and go say about Michelangelo), Hallman plays Prufrock as a feckless quester obsessed with taking because he has nothing to give. He reacts in panic to a loveless engagement by becoming entangled with a waitress . . . he eventually murders--displaying far more enterprise than Eliot would have given him credit for. He also encounters the three Fates, Medea about to murder her children, Odysseus resisting the sirens' song, and Virgil and Dante declaiming from their epic travel poems. The contrast only shrinks Prufrock the more. Hallman creates daring juxtapositions: the chorus moves from overlapping dialogue to a chanted lamentation to final cacophony. It's not easy to perform ritualistic movement in the cramped [coffeehouse space]. And the occasional stiff recitation takes its toll, making the rapid mood changes more confusing than convincing. But Callman's depiction of a very needy Prufrock anchors Eliot's culture-clashing collage in a kind of disarming mediocrity. Eliot, who certainly treasured many artists he didn't get around to mentioning in the poem, would have appreciated this literary carnival," says Reader critic Lawrence Bommer. No Exit Cafe, 7:30 PM.

TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 23

Dorchen & Isaacson's Medicine Show

See listing for 7 PM Monday, September 22. Curious Theatre Branch, 7 PM.

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 25

With Love in Your Arms and a Knife in Your Heart

Joe Meno's noirish drama finds an American boxer exploring Mexico's underworld. It's presented by the O Theater. "What is it about the impulse to explore ritual processes that makes companies forget drama also has to be interesting? This show--a two-hour acting exercise with no intermission--may have been a blast to rehearse, but it isn't much fun to watch. Performed in an arch, intensely physical, slow-motion style, it seems at times a parody of bad theater. But the actors are way too sincere for that, and the story they're performing--Joe Meno's pulpy one-act about a washed-up boxer--hardly seems deserving of such treatment. In fact Carey Friedman's staging works against Meno's script, which luxuriates in the trashy conventions of B-movie noir: we get to see in excruciating detail every dead cliche in Meno's self-consciously hackneyed plot. There are a number of strong performances, however," says Reader critic Jack Helbig. Curious Theatre Branch, 7 PM.

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