LAUGHS OF STEEL…A workout for your diaphragm, Rhinoceros Theater Festival, at the Lunar Cabaret. You’ve got to have something to offer if you’re going to wade into the crowded pool of autobiographical solo performance in Chicago. Dana Block in her one-woman show Laughs of Steel shows she’s got the writer’s chops at least to be allowed in the shallow end. Her first monologue, “My Hair Piece,” leads us from her highly sensual pregnancy (she describes her body as “this human sod, hugely fertile”) to her traumatizing postpartum alopecia (loss of hair) to an absurd fantasy romp with a love-starved Richard Gere in a cheesy Mexican restaurant. In the second piece, “Monkey Man,” she tackles much more sobering material, her younger brother’s irreversible descent into psychosis.

Block writes with efficiency and flair in both pieces. She has a knack for creating images at once arresting and irreverent, calling her newborn daughter a tiny red onion. But as a performer she’s strangely ill at ease with her own material. She proceeds with methodical caution; every gesture and vocal inflection seems overrehearsed, creating a rather impersonal feeling. But once she finds a way to trust her spontaneity and instincts in performance, talking with the audience rather than at them, Block will be a monologuist to contend with. –Justin Hayford