American Blues Theatre

at Bedrocks

Monsters are everywhere. To Shakespeare jealousy was a monster. To Spalding Gray an unfinished manuscript was a monster. Some monsters drink pina coladas at Trader Vic’s, and others work out next to us at Bally’s Chicago Health Club. But it is American Blues Theatre’s contention that most of the monsters out there are the ones that stare back at us from the mirror.

“Monsters II–Visiting Hours” is an ambitious cabaret-style revue of songs, sketches, and monologues that examine the monsters inside us. Showcasing the works of nine Chicago playwrights, it’s an eclectic mix of styles and moods reminiscent of one of those CD samplers put out to promote new releases. Maybe not everything on the CD is to your taste, and you wonder how Weird Al Yankovic and Meat Loaf found their way onto the same album, but you wind up thinking the whole thing is pretty cool.

The offerings fall into three basic categories: clever and entertaining successes, intelligent and worthwhile near misses, and derivative shrugs. The acting and direction are generally excellent.

Among the clear successes are two funny, original scenes by Richard Strand, whose work in this production makes him look like the next big playwright to hit out of Chicago. The Secret of Our Sex Lives is a very funny skit about a sexually disadvantaged couple who discover that an Exercycle can free them of their sexual inhibitions. The Nine Volt Time Machine is a wonderfully imaginative tale of a woman who seeks to escape her dull marriage through the use of time travel but is unable to escape reliving her life. Both of these small gems show how strong writing and an expert eye for character can create a complete play that runs only ten minutes.

Another excellent offering is Paula Killen’s Taped Response, a monologue between a woman and her inner thoughts the night after sleeping with her best friend’s mate. At once hilarious and devastating, Killen’s writing allows us to step into someone else’s mind and hear everything that’s going on there, from the torturous self-doubts to the insipid little pop song that can’t be driven out of her head. The scene also allows for an overwhelmingly honest and insightful performance from Jane Blass.

David Mamet’s Where Were You When It Went Down is an entertaining and thought-provoking bit of Mametspeak about mistrust between off-duty Chicago police officers. Though the dialogue is pretty cryptic and Mamet seems unable to write a script without using the phrase “This is what I am telling you,” the scene works up a palpable tension and allows for gripping performances from Paul Quinn and Jason Wells.

S.L. Daniels’s Come Home With Me is a well-drawn character study of a Clark-and-Belmont Dunkin’-Donuts-style metalhead who reveals her inner pain and loneliness to us with a directness that’s as realistic and horrifying as the removal of bandages. Another excellent performance here, this time from the quirkily charismatic Cecilie Keenan.

Two of the riskiest sketches in the show, by Nicholas Patricca and Douglas Post, come close to being brilliant but falter in their execution. Patricca’s Three Turns With Susan R. is a noir-ish journey into that ghoulish land Uptown with that most ghoulish of Uptown denizens, the Green Mill poet, who recalls a peculiar, vampirelike woman of the world from whose spell he cannot break free. Post’s At Night in the Asylum is a haunting choral reading piece that equates the fears of the inhabitants of a city dwelling with those of a madhouse. Though these pieces are compellingly theatrical, Richard Strand, who directed both, seems unsure whether to play them straight or with a cheeky self-parody. This inconsistency robs the pieces of some of their bite and left me unsure whether I was supposed to get the creeps or a case of the giggles.

The other pieces in the show are adequately performed and decently written but just didn’t grab me. Rick Cleveland’s I Am the Guy, which allows Richard Cotovsky to do his angry “strut about the stage and say fuck a whole lot” shtick, seems strikingly unoriginal. The story of a fuckin’ regular guy who gets the opportunity to review movies with Gene Siskel and talk about how he doesn’t “give a fuck about Tom Cruise” isn’t much more than an R-rated version of WXRT’s Regular Guy routine, and it isn’t even as funny.

Cynthia Caponera’s My Brother’s Keeper, about a woman’s struggle to come to terms with the fact that her brother is gay, struck me as obvious and a wee bit whiny. And Eric Ferguson’s Fictitia and The Apartment allow Peter DeFaria to shock the few suburbanites who haven’t seen Victor/Victoria by presenting the daily struggles of a transvestite who hides layers of pathos underneath layers of flirtation and rouge.

Interspersed between the scenes are some musical numbers, some of which are catchy, some of which are unmemorable, and one of which is pretty trite. But hell, “Monsters II” is never boring, and sometimes it’s downright inspired.