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R. Kelly brings back the freak, 'Trapped in the Closet'

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kells11.JPGR. Kelly's bid for respectability is winding down. Since he was exonerated of child pornography charges in Chicago in 2008, the R&B superstar -- he of the "Freaky Sensation," "Freaky in the Club," "Like a Real Freak" -- has cooled things down with the more traditional, retro-soul albums "Love Letter" and "Write Me Back," and bared not quite all in a memoir, Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me. He was even somewhat restrained in concert last year (pictured) and on his recent duet with Kanye West.

But the freaky, he says, is coming back.

The singer, famous in part for his sexually explicit songs, is working on a new album called "Black Panties" ("My intention: I wanted to do an album for the strip club," Kelly said recently). He's launched a new tour with a stated intention to turn heads (his goal on this tour: "Just basically shocking people," he said).

More importantly, "Trapped in the Closet" is back.

R. KELLY
• 7:30 p.m. Oct. 25, 8 p.m. Oct. 26
• Arie Crown Theater, 2301 S. Lake Shore Dr.
• Tickets: $48-$128; (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com

Just last week, in fact, Kelly unveiled chapter 23 in his surprise hit musical soap opera -- the first of 20 new chapters coming in short order.

"Let me get back to the story," Kelly sing-speaks in the new introductory video, sitting in a fireside armchair with a bound book as if he were Jon Houseman, "because these next chapters of 'Trapped in the Closet' are going to be so crazy."

"Trapped in the Closet" began as a five-part song cycle closing out Kelly's 2005 album "TP.3 Reloaded." The resulting videos, chronicling the misadventures of a man named Sylvester (played by Kelly) and a one-night stand that goes wrong -- and gets weird really fast -- brought the lip-synced tale into telenovela reality. Online, the music videos went viral, so Kelly began cranking them out as a cottage industry. He performed a new chapter at that year's MTV Video Music Awards, he released a DVD, and in 2007 the IFC cable network aired 10 more episodes. (Catch up with all 22 previous chapters here.)

IFC will air new chapters at 8 p.m. Nov. 23. Filming for more resumes in the Chicago area in January.

When we last left the colorful, Tyler Perry-esque characters of Big Man, Pimp Lucius, Chuck, Rufus, Cathy, Sylvester, Gwendolyn, Bridget, James and more, they were all trying to determine the whereabouts of a mysterious package.

Like the briefcase in "Pulp Fiction," we do not (yet) know what is in The Package.

"Ever since then, people have been asking me of course, 'What is the package, what is the package?'" Kelly told the Associated Press. "And that's what these chapters are about, is leading you up into what the package is going to be."

The videos have been shot in and around Chicago, using many Chicago actors. One of them, Eric Lane, who plays Twan, tried to bring us up to date -- but even he was derailed retracing the story.

"We left off in chapter 22, with the phone call, and Twan went to see the head mafia guys -- oh, what's that character's name? There's so many characters ... Joey! He went to see Joey," Lane tells us. "Everybody receives a phone call talking about the package. Rufus and Chuck started it. The gay pastor might have had it. It's all coming down to the package."

The new chapter is brief but introduces two new characters, both played by Kelly: Dr. Perry, a therapist, and Beeno, another crime lord.

Lane, a Chicago actor for nearly 20 years, landed the role of Twan after serving as Kelly's stand-in on the set. Twan, who first appeared in chapter 4, originally was intended to be featured only in bonus content on the DVD.

"With 'Trapped in the Closet,' you have to know the lines line by line because we're not actually using our voices. He's talking through the song," Lane says. "So we have to say exactly what he's saying. That's the biggest difference from TV or film. There's room for improv, but not with the words, only with gestures and actions. So my preparation involves listening to the song 50 or 60 times a day, over and over till I get it down pat."

Lane says he's never encountered anything in the tale that made him personally uncomfortable. Well, except one thing.

"I felt a little bad about pulling a gun on Rosie the Nosy Neighbor. Being an elderly woman, I felt uneasy about that," Lane says. "He did discuss one time some type of situation of me being connected to the [gay] preacher. I said, 'I hope this isn't what I think it is.' We both started laughing.

"But, you know, when this first came out, he got a lot of flak for the gay preacher and stuff like that. He's like, 'I'm gonna make this fun. Everybody says it's too serious.' That's why he brought in the midget police and all that. Now people say he got too silly. You can't please everybody."

Though if it goes on as long as Kelly hopes, he might cover enough ground to please everybody, after all.

"'Trapped in the Closet' is forever," Kelly said. "I've got like a hundred chapters to come. It's forever."


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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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