comedy improv

Stuff to Do: Mission Theater's "Raw Nerve" at iO

Tuesday, October 28, 2014 Rob Samuelson

Tonight marks the final iteration of the Mission Theater's show, Raw Nerve, featuring folk singer-storyteller Jamie Swise, improviser Rebecca Krasney, and a rotating slew of Chicago's up-and-coming improv comedy scene. Halfstack staffer Rob Samuelson took in last week's show as a preview for you folks looking for some Tuesday night entertainment inside the iO Theater building. For tickets, call 312-929-2401 or visit

Jamie Swise looks like Powers Boothe. He has a foul mouth, a lifetime of experiences on the outskirts of the entertainment industry, and a couple gorgeous guitars. He ascends the Mission Theater's stage wearing a black t-shirt and jeans to tell the audience of his intentions.

“I'm gonna sing some songs and tell some lies,” he says.

And so he does. He has stories about singing at Carl Sandburg's funeral, stealing boxes of cereal from the set of The Blues Brothers, and one about how his not knowing The Beatles' “Blackbird” led a man – a weirdo prone to eating shot glasses – to be stabbed. He sings songs that would be at home on the soundtrack to a Ken Burns documentary and plays a 12-string guitar with some of the richest tones I've heard in some time.

Are these stories true? Beats me. Swise could have spent decades goofing off with a notebook, writing lies about his hoped-for dalliances with fame. Or maybe he really was an extra while Jake and Elwood Blues drove their converted cop car through a mall. Maybe he did hear a seven-year-old girl yell obscenities at Carrie Fisher for suggesting she not play in a dirty alley. I don't really care, nor does it matter, because when a performer and raconteur of Swise's ilk is on stage, it's about creating a mood, an internal logic to the stories. Despite some rough-around-the-edges word usage, Swise's mood is jovial. He likes the life he's lived (or made up) and he's glad to share it with us, plus a few folk songs he's picked up along the way.

After Swise finished his piece, Raw Nerve curator Rebecca Krasney took the stage to introduce us to some local sketch and improvisational artists whose material on the night wobbles a little. This is not bad, as it hit on the theme the show's title promises. It's about creation in a live setting. Not everything will be refined, nor will everything be a hit. But it's worth trying, and the performers generally leaned toward the strong side of things.

The best of the bunch was Steph Cook, whose monotone readings of her “spec scripts” for a Friends Netflix revival sounded like the ravings of a sociopath with only the most surface level knowledge of the long-finished series. Her stage directions and dialogue sounded like she had typed them into Google Translate several times to be as hilariously rudimentary as possible. Twists like incest and character deaths from STIs, and her perpetual pronunciation of Matthew Perry's character's name – “Chand-a-ler” – had everyone giggling. Her absurdist skewing of pop culture staples deserves a bigger stage.

Other groups, which included pair of guys boxing each other for real between improvised jokes, were more hit and miss. Krasney herself finished the night with some interpretative dancing and a dig through her wallet to use her stored IDs and membership cards to generate storytelling. From the rehearsed, lived in nature of Swise's act to Krasney's avant-garde DIY, “Raw Nerve” ran the gamut of how to craft and tell stories for a live audience. I'm curious to see where they go tonight.

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