American Blues Theatre

at Club Lower Links

Monsters . . . Glimpses of Urban Lunacy is a series of 11 stories by ten different playwrights about the demons lurking in the minds of ordinary Chicagoans. Each of the works is essentially a monologue, though two of them involve the entire ensemble. Original music is performed live throughout, and most of the stories have a kind of theme song.

The ten playwrights, most of whom are familiar to Chicago audiences, were handed their commissions three years ago. It was worth the wait, for each piece is strong. All of them focus on various average Joes, and most integrate imaginatively the humor and tragedy life in Chicago brings. The music provides clever segues, and the dark and gritty Lower Links space underlines the earthy and eclectic tone.

Some pieces are more powerful than others, though whether this is due to the writing or acting is unclear, since the two are so intertwined. One of the strongest is the show’s opener, Rick Cleveland’s I Am the Guy, which is prefaced by a hilarious 1960s variety-show number, “He Is the Guy.” Performed by Rich Cotovsky as a sort of “Regular Guy Gets Angry,” this work chronicles the ascent of a performer who entertains his audiences by venting his rage about things that bug him. With his gruff charisma Cotovsky is the perfect choice for the monologue, since he’s achieved a certain notoriety with a similar persona in his Bitch With Rich series.

Cleveland’s Up on the Roof combines elements of fancy and reality in a marvelous yarn about Carl, a postal worker who has fled to the roof of his apartment to escape singing zombies. The impish Marty Higginbotham is nothing short of brilliant as Carl. He has perfect comic timing and a face that can turn from anxiety to glee in an instant. Dwight Okita’s Richard Speck is about a young Asian American woman (played with charming childlike joy by Lee Chen) who grew up one block from where Richard Speck killed eight nurses, most of them Filipino, and her obsession with his deed and the one nurse who escaped by hiding beneath the bed. An Alternative to Butch McGuire’s, written by Keith Reddin and performed with polished ardor by Mary Lee Strand, is a fantastical tale of a yuppie who falls in love with a giant amphibian she meets during her morning jog along Lake Michigan. Her passion and vocal intensity belie her restrained and dignified appearance as she turns this fairy tale into a plausible story.

My favorite is Douglas Post’s Escape From Groovy Town, a modern Twilight Zone piece about a yuppie who tries to escape the gentrification of his neighborhood and himself. John Carter Brown plays the runaway with aplomb, conveying with humor and feistiness both the horror of his discovery of the shallow values of his life-style and the naivete of his attempt to truly make a clean break. The ensemble backs him up with monstrous yuppie stereotypes, and Cotovsky has a fun cameo as a resident of a nongentrified neighborhood.

The creative use directors Carmen Roman and Richard Strand make of the entire bar area helps them pull the playlets into a tightly knit show. Mark Botelho’s costumes are right on target, and Joe Cerqua and Marty Higginbotham’s performances and eclectic musical compositions bind the pieces together and add a layer of fun.