After 29 Seasons, RHINO FEST Is Still Going Strong

After 29 Seasons, RHINO FEST Is Still Going Strong

Pictured (l-r): Julia Williams and Kelly Anchors. Photo by Jeffrey Bivens.

By Phillip Lewis:

Think back to your first time you had a creative idea that found its way into the actualized world. Hold on to the long sleepless nights of work through disparity and fear that this opportunity may never come again. This memory, this opportunity has become the 29th annual display of talent that Curious Theatre Branch and The Prop Thtr usher into Chicago as one of its longest-running fringe festivals.

To the core, the 29th annual Rhinoceros Theater Festival is more than a month-long event of plays. It is a yearly incubation of new ideas and bold creators who are given an opportunity. Opportunity plays a pinnacle role in today’s arts and social relevancy when juxtaposed to the current events and hardships. The Rhinoceros Festival bravely charges forward, driven to create a way for any new idea and any inspired mind to have space to breathe life into their creations. This is a feat that stands out above any other fringe festival due to its passion for the idea and not the marketing value. Participants are not weeded out by fees or luck. Instead, the creative legends Jenny Magnus, Julie Williams, Stefan Brün (along with Olivia Lilley who is stepping in as Prop Thtr’s newest Artistic Director) come together to carefully curate the incoming talent into a fully realized showcasing of works running over the course of a month.

This is anything but a lowbrow task. The shows are wide and expansive in nature, delivering a taste of possibilities that would entice all kinds of theatergoers. Though some works are unpolished in their current state, many artists thrive on the eager and exciting energy of process development. The number of times one can hear “Join us at Chief O’Neils to continue the conversation about the show you just saw” drives the point home that the participants of this festival strive to be heard.

Jose Nateras and Sarah Patin. Photo by Matthew Gregory Hollis.

The festival hosts 40 productions along with lectures, vaudeville cabarets, and panels of enormous talent. Spotlighting each performance would be impossible due to the value they each provide. However, the shows showing on a typical weekend excite and inspire returns throughout the month.

Dani Wieder and Itzel Blancas adapt Franz Kafka’s short story “Josephine the Mouse Singer” using interesting puppetry designs by Jurrell Daly and performed by the engaging duo Ariana Silvan-Grau and Gabriel Levine to tell a story of the artist and their unique plight within a community of spectators and critical minds.

“King Arthur: The Fall of Camelot” is a Shakespearean take on the legend’s aftermath, which is devised by an animated cast including Runaway Lab’s Sarah Patin and Jo Schaffer, and directed by Prop’s very own Olivia Lilley.

“The Near Future” boldly stages the absurdist perspective of anxiety, self-worth, and existentialism as it vignettes momentary scenes of fleeting moments. Julia Williams puts the talented cast through an emotional roller coaster that likens to Beckett’s cyclical esthetic. Kelly Anchors, Brook Celeste, Whitman Johnson, and Danne W. Taylor are a team of diverse talent.

“May Day” is a fluid exploration of the events of the titular riots in 1919 as depicted by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Anna Gelman and Zach Weinberg team to fill the stage with comedy, tragedy, mystery, and engaging stage pictures.

Brian Gale, and Jourdan Lewanda. Photo by Anna H. Gelman.

These are merely a handful of the performances this festival all has to offer. The lobby adds to the experience with an array of fan fiction art from across the globe that provides continual conversations of new ideas between each show.

From the art to the carefully chosen performances, to the lively and skilled concession services of Patricia O’Donnell; it is easy to see that The Rhinoceros Festival participants and organizers are passionate about what they provide. Opportunity is a monumentally important element of successful and meaningful art. For that reason, grabbing one of Patricia O’Donnell’s signature cocktails and experiencing new talent rise is the only true way to spend this winter’s weekends.

The 29th Annual Rhinoceros Theatre Festival runs through February 25th. For more information visit

About author

Phillip Lewis

Phillip Lewis is a freelancing director and playwright native to Chicago. He has worked with companies such as Silent Theatre Company, Pegasus Players, Oracle Theater, and Prop Thtr along with a number of Deaf theater companies. He primarily focuses on the aesthetics of storytelling involving the representation of intersectionality and accessibility for all. He hopes to soon be a part-time American Sign Language Interpreter and a full-time impactful director.