The Rhinoceros Theater Festival is back, and currently in its 24th season, it is the city's longest-running fringe theater fete. Presented by Curious Theater Branch, it is, by necessity of budgetary constraints, a shaggy-dog affair.
"It's something we just keep doing," Curious co-founder Beau O'Reilly said with a shrug, a testament to Rhino's endurance, as well as its stubborn refusal to gussy things up.
"The American Drink Book"
"In rural New England towns, every bar is more or less identically disappointing," Rachel Claff says from the perch of a bar stool. "Same smoke-stitched carpet, same 1970s-era jukebox, same red rippled plastic cups, same Budweiser mirror hung on an otherwise blank wall. I pick at a scab of vinyl peeling from the bar booth and sip from my warm, slightly urinary beer."
Her monologue, "Dumb," which dredges up memories of a boyfriend from way-back-when, is one of six essays performed by the collective that goes by the name BoyGirlBoyGirl. They're keen writers and droll solo performers, and I have long been a fan of the group. Over the years they have tackled a variety of topics, always circling back to stories that feel intensely personal.
For lack of a better description, each piece is a short story read aloud, and for this year's Rhino Fest, their inspiration comes from a book of vintage cocktail recipes from 1953 called "The American Drink Book."
Claff's is by far the most visually descriptive. You can clearly picture each location, from the home belonging to her boyfriend's wealthy parents — "so old and massive that it has a separate children's annex, straight out of 'The Secret Garden,' except with a bigger pot stash" — to the parking lot outside the bar, where a member of a college golf team attempts to make clumsy, belittling conversation. Better yet, you completely grasp Claff's mood — at once self-possessed and yet unsteady and completely out of her element.
Both Diana Slickman ("Scotch & Soda") and David Kodeski ("Wallbanger") recall booze-filled memories that involve their parents. Slickman examines family lore, holding it up to the light to better see the cracks, whereas Kodeski offers a wry memory of the basement bar built by his father in their home.
But it is the piece from Edward Thomas-Herrera ("Cranberry Juice Cocktail") that hits you straight through the heart, as he recalls a miserable trip to Los Angeles with his friend Mary Scruggs, the head of Second City's writing program who died at 46 one year ago. Thomas-Herrera can't quite remember all the little details of their platonic night spent in a hotel room, drinking vodka cranberries.
Alcohol has a way of reducing our memories to mush, he helpfully explains. But who thinks to preserve these memories anyway, until it's too late?
"I Love You Permanently"
A fascination with words — their sounds, their meanings, their rhythms — has long been a defining quality of playwright Barrie Cole, whose latest one-act centers on a pair of middle-age star-crossed lovers. She wants a relationship. He does too, except he's already dating someone else and feels an obligation to stick it out. They decide to meet just one more time and "cram an entire relationship into one night."
"It's like an after thing," she tells her sister on the phone ahead of time, "an after-after thing. No, I'm not going to sleep with him. We agreed that could not happen." Predictably, it all goes awry. They have circular conversations that verge on the melodramatic (why can't we make it work?) only to then whimsically attempt to distract themselves.
The emotions feel real enough (Amy Eaton and H.B. Ward are well-matched), but neither Cole nor director Eric Ziegenhagen have found a convincing way to create the kind of stakes that make you root for this couple to figure things out.
"The American Drink Book" is 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday. "I Love You Permanently" is 7 p.m. Fridays through Feb. 10. Both shows are at Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston Ave. Tickets are $12-$15 at rhinofests.com
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