Slinging language hash to various beats--hip-hop, nursery rhymes, blues, boleros--the five members of Universes kick ass in a 90-minute tour de force of spoken-word performance and song. Products of the South Bronx and the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the original artists tossed together a word salad made up of their own verses plus appropriations from Poe, Sandburg, T.S. Eliot, and Muhammad Ali. The lineup has changed slightly since the group began in 1998, but Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz, and Gamal Abdel Chasten remain constants. Now in their late 30s or early 40s, these not-kids consistently reveal their command of the language and of the stage; Ruiz is the group's only woman and an impassioned, inspiring singer steeped in the music of Baptist and Pentecostal churches. Though the folks in Universes have toured to places as distant as Chile and Poland and traveled to museums and universities throughout this country, they cling to their open-mike origins, engaging and challenging the audience as if they could see into the face of every one of us. A bit PC and not quite as fresh as they must have seemed six years ago, what with the popularity of Def Poetry Jam and proliferating poetry slams, Universes nevertheless had the power to make me uncomfortable. Watching a DVD of Slanguage at home, I squirmed in my seat as two guys acted out a meeting with a very uncool dude "not from around here" who doesn't know how to walk the walk or talk the talk. 10/8-10: Fri-Sun 7:30 PM, Museum of Contemporary Art, theater, 220 E. Chicago, 312-297-4010, $22.