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'Rhinofest' returns to Prop Thtr with its signature gusto and flair for risk taking

Updated: Feb 7

Wintertime in Chicago summons many traits with the season. Globs of ice on the sidewalk that melt into puddles only to freeze again, blessed, blasting heaters on the El platforms that are available until April, and an event that's worth braving the cold, seemingly endless, dark days: Rhinofest. It's a jubilant celebration that gathers local artists, passion projects, and a chance to test out bold concepts in an open environment, snugly tucked away in the troves of Avondale.


After a memorable introduction last year, it was exciting to see how Rhinofest kicked off 2020. With its largest amount of programming ever, a well-crafted lobby display of past Rhinofest line-ups, and some events popping up for one night or weekend only at Prop Thtr, it entered this year with a recharged energy. While it would be a dream to cover every show, these productions alerted our attention most. Check out our list for recommendations and let us know any you've seen. Rhinofest runs until the end of February and we always love a reason to return :)

The Anxiety Variety Show


Presented by Clownhouse

Written by and starring: Cal Walker

Directed by: Iris Sowlat

Performances: Thursdays at 7pm until 2/20


Cal Walker offers audiences an escape from their anxieties to hear about their own. This hour long experience mingles memories, musical bits, and knowledge that sneaks up on you. Walker sets the tone with an easy going manner as if we're about to settle in for an open mic. What follows is a riveting, layered exploration of wrangling struggles with self-acceptance and mental health.


As its title indicates, Walker brings comedic prowess that warms up the room over time. One of the most interactive moments comes from a volunteer audience member paired with Walker to play a game titled, "Can We Be Friends?" Walker diligently asks them questions including naturally their astrological sign, if they find them annoying, and their least favorite Weezer album. This was one of many moments where I found myself cry laughing from its refreshing specificity.


Jokes are embedded in its premise, but I found myself more enraptured from listening to Walker's transparent journey on bettering themselves. It's easy to find common ground as they divulge interacting with various shrinks and psychiatrists, prescriptions, and diagnoses of ADD and ADHD. With helpful guidance from Iris Sowlat's direction, Walker plainly informs us of the distinctions between each through chalk writing, measuring out pills, and a sock puppet show that wonderfully physicalizes the daily thought process of bouncing back and forth between anxiety and ADD.


While incredibly specific to their lived experiences, Walker also highlights common issues experienced when seeking professional help. College campuses often have to prioritize students who are at higher risk to supply counseling and are severely understaffed. Off-campus options, especially after graduation, become costly quick. Therapists labeled 'queer friendly' aren't always as Walker recalls someone who called them by the wrong name for a month after they transitioned. A lack of financial support and emotional sensitivity from medical professionals can hinder progress when self-care is necessary to survive.


The Anxiety Variety Show wades deep in the depths of one's mind and channels a longing for levity through humor, music, and connecting with others. For all its disheartening moments, Walker leaves the show on a note of tangible hope: "It doesn't get better, but you get better at it". It's a concluding sentiment that both lifts and grounds like a weighted blanket.

On a Pin Cushion: The Collected Stories of Mary de Morgan



Created and directed by: Dani Wieder and Sarah LN Miller

Starring: Charlie Vail, Jasmine Traylor, Alix Schillaci, Alice Gehrke, and Maria Blanco

Performances: Wednesdays at 9pm until 2/19


Once upon a time doesn't feel so long ago. On a Pin Cushion ruffles through the pages of fairy tales you thought you knew, but upon closer gaze you didn't have a clue. Filled with an air of excitement and infinite possibilities, this play feels as joyous as opening a wide, wooden wardrobe and playing dress up among friends.


Created and directed by Dani Wieder and Sarah LN Miller, they create a frenzy for the senses. There's a delightful ripple that occurs in not knowing what each moment will bring next. Instead of being aimed as a device for tension, it instead unleashes a freedom for play and mischief. In telling Mary de Morgan's tales, a young queen is made up with a globe for a face and blanket for hair. Four of the ensemble members become beads on a princess's necklace rolling front, back, and into one another. A set of eggs are cleaned, shaved, and inevitably scrambled to depict the mistreatment of a kingdom's female citizens.


Wieder and Miller's fascination with lyrical movement to shape this narrative is highly engaging to watch. Vibrant images not only revamp these stories, but awaken nostalgia. Ripping up VHS tapes, reading under the covers, robe climbing, and playing whisper down the lane filled me with a fervent warmth, making me goofily grin like I was eight years old all over again. The costumes and make-up nearly knocked me over with an array of plush velvet, tutus, rainbow socks, glittery sneaks, and bold earrings all perfectly layered and mismatched.


Experiential magic, tragic magic, and impressive magic, a phrase coined by one of the characters, all materialize. Stories unspool to reveal a princess who does voodoo, a pretty princess who others assume is conceited, and a toy princess whose presence is preferred to a live one. Two of the strongest stories come from Alix Schillachi. She lists off remnants of childhood including Mary-Kate and Ashley, bell bottoms and tube tops, reptiles, and of course, fairy hunting. Schillachi recalls memories that led to a revelation of an OCD diagnosis, and the hardships that come from leaving a mossy kingdom behind. Toward the end, she compiles a list of dreams all beginning with, "I want", which is beyond breathtaking to take in.


On a Pin Cushion connects bundles of shame, grief, and loss across a multitude of locations, some otherworldly and not. From grocery store trips and slumber parties to seances and underwater kingdoms, it's a charming, deceptive adventure with twinkly music box music to top it all off. It'll make you laugh, clutch your chest, and most importantly remember how the wonders of childhood keep us alive.

Ghosts of Whitechapel


Written by: Kate Black-Spence and Chris Brickhouse

Directed by: Laura Sturm Starring: Mariah Copeland (Mary Ann "Polly" Nichols), Courtney Jones (Annie Chapman), Lisa Herceg (Catherine Eddowes), Jess Maynard (Elizabeth Stride), and Sara Copeland (Mary Jane Kelly)

Performances: Wednesdays at 7pm until 2/19




Ghosts of Whitechapel reminds us that women have gotten screwed over, often when getting screwed, for a long time. A fiery rage ignites this play, written by Kate Black-Spence and Chris Brickhouse, as it gathers a group of women who have been classified as victims and defined by one violent action to reclaim their narratives as the survivors they are. It wrestles with the idea of how hearsay becomes history providing a stinging resonance. It's a living testament to the burdens women carry and how friendship fervently feeds the flames of resistance.


Five women make their rounds in a drab, yet warm lodging in 1888 Whitechapel. It feels like a salon, except with beer and cursing, as they're all deliciously quick-witted and quick to judgment questioning each other's religion, morality, and social activities aka prostitution. Polly (Mariah Copeland) immediately comes off as the most intriguing and lovable of the crew which makes her all the more tragic since she quickly dies. Her fate foreshadows the others as one by one they become who they're known as: the women murdered by Jack the Ripper, who significantly is never named.


With the stakes so high and subject matter intense, ninety minutes go by fast, but it doesn't feel like it. Direction by Laura Sturm allows time in the play's opening moments for the audience to sink into this world, before embarking down a winding path that ends in surprising satisfaction. While the group's numbers dwindle, none of them die completely. They speak beyond the grave, commenting on those left and the lost dreams they've abandoned. Each leaves, but is not forgotten.


Polly's death sparks a dialogue that mirrors many today regarding sexual assault. Mary Jane (Sara Copeland) expresses how Polly must have provoked the aggressor and Catherine (Lisa Herceg) states the obvious solution is that they stay off the streets until things calm down. They agree to choose more cautiously the gentlemen they go home with. This doesn't only affect their business, but threatens their livelihood showing the constant struggles of sex workers which many still face. I would love to see a future production that helps raise awareness and funds for local organizations that help sex workers.


It's delightful to indulge in their scenes of discourse with lines that are gasp inducing, like when Catherine says about Elizabeth (Jess Maynard), "She only births stories, not children." At times, it felt like watching a classic scene from The Real Housewives, the highest of standards for riveting entertainment. Their differing, individualistic personalities get under each other's skin yet they look out for their own with an underlying respect that begins as tolerance and builds an unbreakable bond.


While ghostly in nature, Ghosts of Whitechapel cuts to the bone. Real stories, sweat, and tears soak up this tale that it bursts from anguish. It garners applause in the middle with a masterful double act from Herceg and Maynard who revel in the independence, money, and sexual liberation they found in their work despite its limits. Their tight, astonishing rapport allows a welcome opportunity to laugh out loud before Sarah Copeland's tear inducing monologue as Mary Jane drives us home. The women tell their stories, but their ending is a beginning. It's an opening for many stories that wait to be told. Maybe by you.

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