Here are five theater festivals to help you survive January | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

Here are five theater festivals to help you survive January 

Puppets! Storytelling! Social consciousness! Brilliant teens! Rhinofest weirdness!

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click to enlarge Ajijaak on Turtle Island

Ajijaak on Turtle Island

Richard Termine

Note to T.S. Eliot: Sorry/not sorry, April isn't the cruelest month. That would be January, the annual 31-day slog when, in Chicago, both sky and ground are a monolithic gray. If you aren't among those who use "winter" as a verb (i.e.: "We're wintering in Cabo"), consider 2019's roster of festivals the entertainment equivalent of a high-wattage sun lamp. From young playwrights to veteran puppeteers, January stages bloom with diversions. Read on for the particulars.

32nd Annual Young Playwrights Festival

Pegasus estimates it annually reads through roughly 500 play submissions from Chicago- and-environs high school students before picking a few to stage in productions crafted by Chicago's veteran directors, actors, and designers. Kenwood Academy senior Anonda Tyler's Hyde Park-set Fragile Limbs is one of the three selected this year. Tyler's plot deals with gun violence, a topic she'd initially shied away from. "I wasn't going to enter because I didn't think I had anything to say that hasn't been said already," she says. "But then I realized—nobody has told this in my voice."

That voice is inspired by real events and close friends: "Faith and Hope are a boy and a girl—their names are qualities they should have but don't," Tyler continues. "I wanted to show how pain can hinder and help us, and how these emotions can be universal. I also wanted to show that from pain, love and comfort can grow." Through 1/27: Fri-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM; no performance Sun 1/13, Chicago Dramatists, 773 N. Aberdeen, 773-878-8864, pegasustheatrechicago.org, $30, $25 seniors, $18 21 and under.

The Rhinoceros Theater Festival

"Every year, we swear 'That's it.' We're never doing this again,'" says Jenny Magnus, co-founder (with Beau O'Reilly) of Curious Theatre Branch/Rhino Fest. This year, as ever, Magnus broke her oath. Politics, both local and national, played a role. "People making something out of nothing in this fucked-up world is extremely important," Magnus says. "If our artistic enclaves cannot support each other? We are absolutely not going to make it."

The 2019 Rhino entries are a multigenerational effort created by artists ranging in age from 15 to older than 80. Among them: an opening night vaudeville musicale, a drag ode to Barbra Streisand, a full production of Caryl Churchill's demon-infused drama The Skriker, and a weekly podcast about Chicago's arts and culture scene.

"I get emotional about it because things are so fucking desperate right now," says Magnus. "Making art is one of the only answers I know." 1/12-2/24: Wed-Fri 7 PM, Sat noon, Sun 3 PM, Mon 7 PM; see website for individual performance times, Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston, rhinofest.com, $15 or pay what you can.

Encounter

When the local CBS affiliate ran a story about missing women from Chicago's south side, playwright B.B. Browne was left with more questions than answers. "It was only a snapshot," she says. "No follow-up. But the community has been talking about this, black and brown women disappearing. We don't have hard numbers, but people are worried. And we know that if this was happening on the north side, we'd be hearing more about it. The question for me became, 'How can I as an artist uplift these sisters who are crying for help?'" The answer lies in Missing, a short play Browne hopes to expand to full-length.

Variations on Browne's core question inform all of Collaboraction's Encounter, which is curated into different nightly programs, many followed by panels, discussions, and calls for community involvement outside the theater. The productions are embedded with topical urgency: Alanisse Pineda's 16 Shots uses the the murder of Laquan McDonald to explore both police brutality and the daily barrage of microaggressions faced by people of color. An adaptation of Tonika Lewis Johnson's acclaimed Folded Map Project photographs, which bring together people from corresponding addresses on the north and south sides, takes on the geography of segregation and racism. Picnic Summit by Sami Ismat, who is a Syrian refugee, digs into politics as laid out at a family gathering.

"I see my piece as a jumping-off point," says Browne. "I want there to be change. I want there to be healing. I want us to be talking about all of these things." 1/15-1/27: dates and times vary; see website, Collaboraction, 1579 N. Milwaukee, 312-226-9633, collaboraction.org, $25, $15 students, festival pass $60, $30 students.

22nd Annual Fillet of Solo Festival

If you were around for Fillet of Solo's epic run at the Live Bait Theater (1987-2009, RIP), you probably don't require further impetus to make for the box office. David Sedaris debuted stories at FoS back in the day. So did Tellin' Tales Theatre cofounder Tekki Lomnicki, a singer-storyteller and self-described little person who spins comic gold from autobiographical tales. When the Live Bait shuttered in 2009, Lomnicki—among many others—worried for future Fillets, but Lifeline Theatre picked up the series in 2010 and it's been running in Rogers Park ever since. This year, Lomnicki brings Come Hell or High Water, drawn from her experiences with business travel.

"This was the late 1980s, early 90s," Lomnicki recalls, "when there were 'handicapped' hotel rooms which always only had one bed. The company I worked for was too cheap to give us our own rooms, so I'd literally wind up sleeping with strangers. I mean, fine, I can bring a stool to get to the towels or whatever. But sleeping with strangers? Come. On."

Along with Lomnicki and her Tellin' Tales collaborators, Fillet also includes the comic stylings of Stir Friday Night! (Steven Yeun, aka Glenn on the The Walking Dead, is a former member), and the unfiltered "brain- droppings" of Moth GrandSlam champ Lily Be, the Back of the Yards native whose Stoop series provides one of Chicago's rare showcases for storytellers of color.

After the recent sale of the Heartland Cafe and the future of the Event Space uncertain, Lomnicki has a sense of déjà vu, like it's the 2009 Live Bait closing all over again, minus much of the worry. "The stories aren't going away. Neither are the storytellers," she says. 1/18-2/2: times and locations vary; see website, 773-761-4477, lifelinetheatre.com, $10, festival pass $50.

Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival

"If someone who doesn't know puppetry gets into a room where they see a contemporary piece of puppet theater, they're shocked," says Blair Thomas, founder of the Chicago International Puppet Festival and cofounder of the late Redmoon Theater, the company largely responsible for helping puppets find a place within Chicago theater. Puppet Fest is about cultivating the art form as well as bringing it to audiences, he adds. "Obviously we're having a moment where puppets are grabbing hold. Take away the puppets from Lion King or War Horse and what do you have left? But those puppets didn't just happen—they took years, decades, to create."

Puppet Fest was born in 2000, co-curated by Thomas and Susan Lipmann in collaboration with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Since 2015, it's been a biennial. This year's festival is vast, encompassing 70 events performed by 50 artists. Among them are:

Ajijaak on Turtle Island, performed by members of the Ojibwe, Ho-Chunk, Lakota, and Cherokee nations and based on indigenous legends, is a tale of cranes created from storyboards by codirectors Ty Defoe and Heather Henson, daughter of Muppets creator Jim Henson.

Just Another Lynching, from North Carolina-based puppet artist Jeghetto, is the story of a black man murdered in 1921.

Arde Brillante en los Bosques de la Noche (Burning Bright in the Forest of the Night), a puppet/film/live theater mashup by Argentinian artist Mariano Pensotti is based on the words and actions of Soviet revolutionary and feminist Alexandra Kollontai. 1/17-1/27: times and locations vary; see website, 312-753-3234, chicagopuppetfest.org, $10-$40.

In Memoriam: The Chicago Fringe Festival

Fests are not forever. The Chicago International Theatre Festival? Gone. The Chicago Fringe and Buskers Festival? Likewise. This year came word that the Chicago Fringe Festival (which some argued was redundant because what is Chicago's vast off-Loop theater scene if not a yearlong fringe festival?) is also kaput, after 10 years and an estimated 367 shows. The Fringe's volunteer staff was no longer up to the demands of producing the annual shebang, or so explained the official RIPress release. But mark your calendars! There's a commemorative party slated for Saturday, June 11, at the Windsor Tavern and Grill, 4530 N. Milwaukee. January will surely be over by then.   v

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