Left: My Dinner with Joe from the 2020 Rhino Fest. Playwright Matt Rieger (seated on far left), who died in October 2021, is honored in the festival this year with a production of his last play, Jimmy and the Nickels Right: Eve the Bunny performs as part of The Labyrinth Hour Cabaret. Credit: Jeffrey Bivens/Eric Magnusson

In January 2020, I checked in with Jenny Magnus about Rhinoceros Theater Festival (better known as Rhino Fest), the city’s longest running fringe theater festival. “The world is really hard right now,” Magnus said at the time. “All we have is each other and the intention to do something good. Aid and comfort. We just need to be paid attention to and we need to be taken care of a little bit.”

That was before COVID-19 wreaked havoc with everything, not least the fortunes of small theater companies like Curious Theatre Branch, which Magnus cofounded with Beau O’Reilly and which has been producing Rhino Fest since the late 1980s. Among other developments since the last Rhino, Prop Thtr (cofounded by Magnus’s husband, Stefan Brün) gave up their longtime two-venue building in Avondale, where Rhino had been housed for many years.

But Rhino is back—or at least, “A Hint of Rhino” is. 

A Hint of Rhino: Rhinoceros Theater Festival 2022
4/1-5/7: performances at Jimmy Beans Coffee, 2553 W. Fullerton, and the Broadway at PrideArts Center, 4139 N. Broadway; full schedule and tickets at rhinofest.com, $20 or pay what you can. (The Broadway is wheelchair accessible; Jimmy Beans is up one flight of stairs.)

Opening April 1 and running through May 7 at two venues—Logan Square’s Jimmy Beans Coffee and the Broadway at PrideArts Center in Buena Park—the latest incarnation of Rhino may be a little truncated compared to the abundant schedules of years past. And unlike past Rhinos, where performers were invited to submit proposals, this year the producers reached out to artists old and new that they wanted to highlight. 

“We’re calling it a Hint of Rhino because it really is different,” says Magnus. “It’ll never be like this again. If we do Rhino and when we do Rhino again, it will go back to the bigger submission process of really trying to open the doors to just as many people as we can possibly cram in.” She further notes, “This is our first time doing it in not our own space in like 17 years. It’s the first time doing it in two different venues that are at different places [in the city] in a really long time.”

One of the other things that Curious and Rhino are trying to come back from is the loss last October of Curious’s longtime managing director, Matt Rieger, who died shortly after being diagnosed with cancer.

Rieger’s work is part of Rhino this year, however; Brün directs Rieger’s play Jimmy and the Nickels at PrideArts (it runs Sundays and Thursdays, with a celebration of Rieger following the 3 PM show on Sunday, May 3). It’s a follow-up to Rieger’s My Dinner With Joe, which ran in the 2020 Rhino. “That play was very humorous and sort of brought up a little world of modern masculinity that is in a crisis, but in a very humorous crisis,” says Brün. In Rieger’s last play, “There’s three old guys who run this little shop and they’re all Jimmys and all they got is nickels,” says Brün. “There’s actually a nickel shortage and they’re old-fashioned Luddites who don’t want to adapt to new tech. They just want to keep things really simple.” 

He also notes that the PrideArts space (and possibly Jimmy Beans) will have a listening station so audiences can hear Rieger’s Aviva Green: The Rebirth of Bleak, inspired by his noiresque play Crossing Aviva, which Curious produced in 2018. The episodic follow-up was recorded as an audio drama for Rhino at Experimental Sound Studio; it’s also available as a download through Bandcamp.

Magnus and Brün both note that the two different spaces will offer different kinds of programming. The more intimate room at Jimmy Beans, where O’Reilly has been organizing Saturday cabaret-style shows, will feature music and storytelling; opening night features an evening of new speculative fiction from Sharon Houk, Andy Sullivan, and Tanner Vaughan Halversen, and the Crooked Mouth (a band composed of Magnus, O’Reilly, T-Roy Martin, Vicki Walden, and Heather Riordan) will perform on Saturday, April 2.

The connection to PrideArts came about because Brün was brought in as a consultant when the company started fixing up the space during the COVID shutdown. PrideArts let Curious use the theater for a three-week tribute to the late Rhino/Curious vet Michael Martin last fall. 

Chicago Beast Women, who bill themselves as “Chicago’s longest-running showcase for veteran and premiering female artists,” will take the Saturday late-night slot at PrideArts for Rhino. Labyrinth Arts and Performance Collective, run by Diane Hamm, will offer The Labyrinth Hour Cabaret, featuring several drag artists (including Eve the Bunny, Narcisca, and Slussy Vanity) as well as sketch artists John Klingle and Paul Brennan in John & Paul: Strictly Platonic at PrideArts.

Even in this somewhat-smaller format, putting together Rhino Fest remains a gargantuan task (one that Magnus sadly notes is even harder without the administrative chops and general joie de vivre of Rieger to lean on). So why do it?

“It’s the philosophical question for us as a company, for sure,” says Magnus, “and for us as makers. Why should we do this unbearable amount of work that is just so exhausting? We really sit and go, ‘Do we really want this again?’ And the answer always comes down to: we could just be making our own little stuff in our own little corner and that could be enough. Or we can extend ourselves and support other artists who don’t have a company with money behind them. We support artists who don’t have an infrastructure, who don’t necessarily even have collaborators. We can support artists who want a low-stakes environment for their work.

“So I think it is sincerely about wanting to be of service to the community and the tremendous feeling of togetherness that brings. We call it the Rhino bliss. It’s the summer camp feeling. There’s nothing like it when you’re in the lobby and people are coming out of one show or going into another show, and there’s this mix of all kinds of people.”