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Nora Dunn gives life to myriad characters in one-woman show

NorDunn (with her dog Petie) is starring her one-woman show 'Mythical Proportions' Theater Wit.  |  Michael Jarecki~For Sun-Times

Nora Dunn (with her dog Petie) is starring in her one-woman show "Mythical Proportions" at Theater Wit. | Michael Jarecki~For Sun-Times Media

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“Mythical Proportions,” through Sept. 22, Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont. $24-$32. (773) 975-8150;

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Updated: August 15, 2013 2:48AM

During her five often tumultuous seasons (1985-1990) as a member of the “Saturday Night Live” cast, actress-comedian Nora Dunn developed a slew of characters with a range of temperaments and voices (from Ashley Ashley, the pretentious film critic, to Babette, the volatile French prostitute), while also demonstrating her flair for celebrity impersonations ranging from Imelda Marcos and Liza Minnelli to Martina Navratilova and Joan Baez.

But it is the voice of Joanne, a seven-year-old girl who has been inhabiting the actress’ imagination since early childhood, who continues to inspire her. And she will be among the characters Dunn brings to the stage in her new 70-minute one-woman show, “Mythical Proportions,” in previews starting Aug. 15 and opening Aug. 19, at Theater Wit.

After attending to her beloved Petie (“a rescued street dog who was full of fleas and bad teeth when she found ME about six years ago”), the Chicago-bred Dunn, 61, sat down for a chat recently. Here is some of what she said:

Q. What is the difference between a stand-up comedy act and a one-woman show?

NORA DUNN: I think there is a feminine energy to my comedy. I don’t follow the masculine rules that demand you come out and get a laugh right away. I structure my comedy with a slow build to the laugh, and I think this makes it more poignant, even if I bounce back to the comedy. And the theater audience is different from the comedy audience. I can do darker stuff along with the silly stuff. For example, I tell a true story about an incident I witnessed in New York, when a man dropped out of a tree and began defecating.

Q. Before turning to performing you studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Why did you shift gears?

ND: I began at SAIC right afer coming out of Catholic schools where you were told exactly what to do all the time. I drew very well, but I was lost, because no one at art school told me what to do. I still draw, and also make little clay figures of wild animals forced to wear human clothing who are not happy.

Q. You admit to being very introverted, and say you still suffer from stage fright. How did you conquer that?

ND: Early on, when I worked as a waitress, I had to deal with strangers, and that began to free me up a bit. Now, I still have a fear of facing an audience and failing them. But once I’m out there on stage I’m okay.

Q. Who do we meet in “Mythical Proportions”?

ND: The show is made up of four monologues in character, plus several stories about my own mythology. I’ve been doing Joanna for years — ever since I got a doll as a Christmas gift and created a voice for her. My mom even took me to a doctor who told her not to worry, she was just my ‘imaginary friend.’ I love her matter-of-factness — the way she responds to things she hears on television but doesn’t fully understand. She thinks Mr. Rogers should get out of that unreal neighborhood of his, and that kids from gated communities have limited imaginations. And she really likes “Lockdown,” the show that visits prisons.

There’s also a sequence about an 87-year-old woman — the first celebrity agent in Hollywood — who is very full of herself. It’s partly inspired by stories of film producer Robert Evans. And then there is Mrs. Williams, the 65-year-old African American, who grew up in the era of institutional segregation. Her husband is thrown into crisis when he learns his daughter is marrying a white man, but he realizes he must change for the sake of his grandchildren.

Q. And what about family stories?

ND: Well, I grew up in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood — one of six kids with a mother who could lose it while making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for all of us, and trying to survive on my dad’s salary as a piano player.


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