By Elizabeth Elving
On Tuesday, at the 8 p.m. close of regular business hours, the owners of Logan Square’s Cafe Mustache dimmed the lights and placed tea candles on each of the mismatched tables. Patrons shut their laptops and switched from coffee to beer. The music faded out, and the talk turned to sin.
The Seven Deadly Sins storytelling series has been a regular event at the coffee shop for two years. At each session, seven performers tell a story related to one of the seven deadly sins. The stories can be funny, filthy, or heartbreaking, personal or fictional, so long as they fit the premise.
“No matter what your story is, it’s going to fall in line with one of the sins somehow,” said Angela Vela, the event’s coordinator. “It’s a way to expand how we think about our experiences. It helps us discover ourselves.”
Vela is a stand-up comic who produces a number of shows including The God, Sex & Death Variety Hour in neighborhood venues around Chicago. Local writers, comics, academics, and actors pitch their stories to her, along with the sin they want to interpret. The chosen stories are shared on the second Tuesday of every month.
Vela served as emcee on Tuesday, choosing the order of performers at random by spinning a “Wheel of Sin” on which she’d painted seven sections with a different sin on each one.
“Greed! Clap for greed, you guys,” she said as Second City teacher Joe Janes made his way to the stage. Janes’s story, about stealing from his landlord in college, was not the only performance to mix comedy with confession.
“I played no sports, was in no clubs, had the same dork haircut I have now, and the same face I have now except with acne and braces,” said Robert O’Connor, wincing through a high school memory during his take on “pride.”
Cafe Mustache is well-suited for the eclectic event. Its decor evokes a bygone era, although it’s difficult to say which one. A collection of vinyl records from local artists share the space with assorted globes, plants, birdcages, and watercolors painted by a regular customer. On one wall a few wooden masks huddle next to an old tuba which is anchored to the wall above a retro salon dryer chair.
“We pretty much stole all of the cool stuff from all of our houses that we could find,” said Kerry Couch, who co-founded the café in 2010 with James Stieglitz and Ralph Darski.
Cafe Mustache doubles as a cross-genre music venue, hosting everything from hip-hop to folk acts. The Seven Deadly Sins is their only regular lit series, but Couch says it’s a good fit for the space because of the adventurous nature of the work.
“We want it to remain a place where people try things out,” Couch said, “It’s a comfortable environment. It’s pretty small, it’s low-key. So people are comfortable doing that.”
The full house at Tuesday’s show was quick with laughter and applause, as if encouraging the performers to take risks. Writer Katie Prout portrayed “sloth” as a series of scenes, which she said was a new format for her. Couch herself performed for the first time on Tuesday, tackling “wrath” as a feminist manifesto, complete with visual aids.
The Seven Deadly Sins is part of a network of readings, comedy nights, and open mics that make up Chicago’s vibrant storytelling scene. Several of the performers featured on Tuesday host their own events on other nights. Mary Rose O’Connor (lust) produces variety show The Gogo Show, and Dave Lasso (gluttony) produces the Yeah Buddy Awesome Time Comedy Show. Ray Teresi (envy) co-produces The Seven Deadly Sins among other live lit series.
“I do feel that the show is all-inclusive to general creativity,” said Vela. “The performers help the show be outside the box and the show helps them be outside the box.”
After years of supporting local artists and building an audience, Cafe Mustache turned to that community for support in 2013 when the salon next door went out of business and they decided to expand into the space. Couch said that “a good chunk” of the money for the ongoing expansion was crowdfunded through Kickstarter.
But the real power of The Seven Deadly Sins is not specific to Logan Square, or the storytelling scene, or even the city of Chicago. The series brings to light the things that people are taught to be ashamed of, and uses them to form connections. Lily Ramos, who on Tuesday was attending the show for the third time, said she found the results inspiring.
“People are not afraid to put their mess out there, and that’s interesting because we’re all suffering in some way,” she said.
The Seven Deadly Sins will be featured at the Fillet of Solo Festival on Sunday, Jan. 25, at 4 p.m. The next regular event will be on Feb. 10 at Cafe Mustache at 2313 North Milwaukee Avenue.