Older white-haired man in a suit stands pointing out toward audience, with a jumble of desks and chairs piled up behind him.
Jim Ortlieb in Stand Up If You're Here Tonight at American Blues Theater Credit: Michael Brosilow

In the longstanding tradition of solo performers benevolently fucking with their audiences, Dean Evans’s masterful 2012 Honeybuns holds a special place in Chicago storefront history as a sweet spot between gently antagonistic and subtly profound crowd work. I was warmly reminded of it at key points throughout writer-director John Kolvenbach’s new hour-long piece, which takes its own pronounced, different route to arrive at a similar destination: a love letter to the collective theatrical experience wrapped in audience engagement designed to nudge onlookers out of their comfort zones.

Stand Up If You’re Here Tonight
Through 4/9: Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 4:30 and 7:30 PM, Sun 2:30 PM; also Wed 4/6, 7:30 PM; Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, 773-975-8150, americanbluestheater.com, $25-$45.

Jim Ortlieb gives a dynamic, charismatic, often sleight-of-hand performance as an unnamed guru making a direct appeal to the intimately spaced Theater Wit audience: he can offer us the spiritual peace we seek, if only we follow along. When it becomes clear that his plan is going awry—or maybe that we aren’t who he has hoped we’d be—Ortlieb’s character must improvise to take us away to the promised land. Kolvenbach’s playful, esoteric, sometimes self-serious monologue lends itself to plenty of equally convincing interpretations, including the vital but tumultuous relationship stage performers have with their art form right now as the world creeps in and out of hermetically-sealed hibernation. Stand Up If You’re Here Tonight is at its best when it shows its hand as a messy, earnest, poetic dalliance (in one particularly funny bit, Ortlieb shows us the result of a card trick without any setup and asks, “Is this anything?”); less so when it’s making hard juxtapositions of deeply traumatic or lonely vignettes against call-and-response bits, a game that strings viewers along to diminishing returns. But when American Blues Theater’s production keys in on its own wavelength, it makes a powerful case for the magic of capital-H Happenings—even if we can’t always put our fingers on why.