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On Stage: S.L. Daniels meets her monsters

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Actor Jason Wells grimaces as he hunches over to get through the doors onto the el. "They don't build these cars for me or Abraham Lincoln, do they?" he asks of no one in particular. He sits awkwardly. "Hard to find a place for these long legs. Are my feet hitting you?" he asks concernedly of another passenger. All relatively normal, save that Wells is of average height. This is the curious beginning of S.L. Daniels's theater piece "When William Looks Down," the standout moment in American Blues Theatre's entertaining potpourri of short pieces, Monsters III: The El Ride.

Daniels is Canadian but grew up in LA--she's a Valley Girl from Encino: "The bad part of Encino." (That's an LA joke.) She moved to Chicago ten years ago. "I always say, 'For the weather.'" She makes her living by designing jewelry. As a writer, not a performer, she's contributed to all three Monsters shows, and recently had one of her pieces read at an evening of performance hosted by Cheryl Trykv. In that one, "Night of the Coals," a woman who's afraid of everything is persuaded to walk on hot coals, the theory being that doing one genuinely terrifying thing might neutralize her fears. In the end the woman decides she's afraid of certain things for a reason: "Hold on to your fears," she says. "If you lose your fears, what's left to protect you?"

"When William Looks Down" is more complex: after the rather broad humor of the beginning, William, the odd man on the train, begins to digress wildly about his job and his distant boss. "One time he walked into the office. He walked right in and said [pause], 'Wrong door.' Like that: 'Wrong door.' What do you think he meant?" Funny, fascinating, and ultimately touching, the piece starts out being about a physical monster but sidles over into examining a more abstract one: William's real monster is feeling small. "We were told to write anything to do with monsters in Chicago," says Daniels. "Originally I was thinking, OK, what were my monsters when I was a child? Of course it was giants. In the original drafts he was more menacing, but I don't think I got underneath him. Later, he was less menacing, but I hope more sympathetic."

The piece is turbocharged by the dead-on work of actor Wells. "I think he's way excellent," says Daniels. You can take the girl out of Encino. . . .The show's up at American Blues Theatre's new digs, 1909 W. Byron (at Lincoln), through May 14. Daniels's isn't the only piece worth seeing. Jeff Goode's "Spiderman" takes the shtick of the superhero with human problems to amusing lengths, and Richard Strand's "Godzilla, R.F.D." is an over-the-top nightmare that envisions humans shooting on and off the el like mail down the sorting chutes. Monsters III: The El Ride shows Fridays and Saturdays at 11 PM, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 PM. Tickets are $10; call 929-1031.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Yael Routtenberg.

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