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Monsters III: The El Ride

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MONSTERS III: THE EL RIDE

American Blues Theatre

It's a cliche to say that a great actor can read the phone book and be interesting. Well, Chicago actor Jason Wells could probably stare at a phone book and keep an audience enraptured. His white-hot performance in an otherwise lukewarm Monsters III: The El Ride makes me wonder why he didn't just perform the whole show himself.

Certainly he could have. Although I've only seen Wells in three shows in as many years, his remarkable range is evident; it would serve him well here, since Monsters is made up of ten stories by ten different authors, all incorporating the el in some way. And their performance by a single actor might have lent more coherence to a frustratingly disjointed evening.

Wells performs "When William Looks Down" by S.L. Daniels, about a man so plagued by insecurity that to compensate he has convinced himself he's taller than everyone around him. Daniels places William on the el en route to a job interview, a situation that makes him doubly insecure--which in turn makes him babble on about his uneventful and pathetic life to the hapless strangers trapped in the car with him.

The monologue is well written but full of rather predictable metaphors, as are most of the pieces in this show. Having William compensate for his feelings of insignificance by imagining that he's a giant is a bit obvious. But Wells grabs hold of the piece and pushes it into the stratosphere.

Wells is mesmerizing the instant he appears onstage, nearly squatting in order to fit through the el door, hands pressed together and fingers splayed in anxiety. Clearly William is a mess--he's actually glued himself to his boss in order to get some attention, for example--but Wells smartly makes the surface of his character as normal as possible. He carries on as though surrounded by a group of supportive friends, taking every opportunity to appear cool, confident, and considerate. Yet the inner William, the one who hopes to impress people by telling them he buys pencils in bulk, simply screams to get out: he squirms in and out of his seat in an ever-evolving series of nervous tics. Wells's physical work is so meticulously choreographed that it appears effortless.

Unfortunately the kind of in-depth character work in Wells's performance is lacking in the rest of the show. The other performers tend to follow the surface emotions of their texts, delivering angry words angrily, guilty words guiltily, regardless of the context in which they appear. This kind of simple emotional underlining is absolutely epidemic among Chicago actors; they seem to forget that you needn't be sad to tell a sad story, and that if you are you will probably end up sounding maudlin. Without opposition, there is no drama.

This approach also undermines any sense of dramatic coherence in the monologues. The actors pay attention to moments but overlook the big picture. Instead of knowing where they're heading, as people always do when telling stories, they tend to get sidetracked by emotional displays, feeling their way through an experience that's already in the past.

The overall lack of cohesion in this production is partly due to the scripts themselves. Most of the stories either stray well beyond their limits or entrench themselves in unnecessary detail. In Richard Strand's "Godzilla, R.F.D.," an impressionable young postal worker trapped on an endless el ride around the Loop inexplicably falls out of the train and into a truck full of sheep that then travels to Wolcott, Iowa, "home of the country's largest truck stop." What the end of the story has to do with the beginning is unclear. In Steve Nordmark's "Elevated," an angel discussing the importance of traffic safety describes the run-down state of her former car in minute detail. The images are funny, but they don't serve the story.

But mostly the pieces lack intellectual rigor. They're clever--Spiderman laments his impending death from cigarette-induced cancer, an anxious businessman revisits a childhood trauma caused by the belief that the population of China could throw the earth out of orbit if they all jumped at the same time--but ultimately their cleverness doesn't serve to communicate any larger issues or ideas.

Certainly it requires a lot of work to stage so many pieces. And considering that American Blues Theatre just opened their handsome new theater and has had to compete with live music from the adjoining cafe--because of which at least one Saturday performance was canceled--it's impressive that these folks are still on their feet. But this production has an overall feeling of fatigue. Perhaps when all the dust settles, American Blues can regroup and produce the kind of quality work their reputation is built on.

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