REVIEW: That’s Weird, Grandma (Barrel of Monkeys)

Innovative art springs from the minds of babes

 

That's Weird, Grandma - Barrel of Monkeys - Photo by Erich Nerger (2)

Barrel of Monkeys presents:

That’s Weird, Grandma

Open Run at the Neo-Futurists  (more info)

review by Keith Ecker

Chicago is not lacking in the comedy department. I’ve met accountants who do improv comedy by night and schoolteachers who do stand-up. There are no less than three prominent comedy institutions in the city—Second City, iO and the Annoyance Theatre—not to mention the smaller contenders, including The Playground Theater, the Cornservatory, Chemically Imbalanced Comedy, pH Productions and ComedySportz.

That's Weird, Grandma - Barrel of Monkeys - Photo by Erich Nerger (5) Perhaps this saturation is to compensate for the depressing and long Chicago winters we have to suffer through. Regardless, saturation is the key term. How much comedy can one sit through before you feel like you’ve heard the same joke a hundred times over? Who do we turn to for comedy that pushes the boundaries while delivering fresh material?

The answer is the children.

Theatre company Barrel of Monkeys has tapped into the genius that is Chicago’s public school students and mined the young minds for comedic gems. And what they deliver is absolutely fascinating, often surreal and at times extraordinarily touching.

The show That’s Weird Grandma, which plays weekly at the Neo-Futurists space in Andersonville, is a fast-paced variety show of child-written stories adapted to the stage by the talented theatre group. Each week, the cast slots out one to three sketches, resulting in a completely new show every few weeks.

That’s Weird Grandma is only a small component of the Barrel of Monkeys franchise, which consists of an ambitious educational outreach program that teaches kids about creative writing. Since the program began, the group has worked in 32 Chicago Public Schools, and more than 7,000 students have participated in its workshops. There is also an after-school program in Loyola Park Field House in Rogers Park.

That's Weird, Grandma - Barrel of Monkeys - Photo by Erich NergerThe show I saw consisted of 16 sketches, each lasting no more than several minutes. Sketches were presented in rapid-fire succession, and each was given an introduction that included the name and school of the student who had written the piece. Most of the pieces were completely fictitious though a couple were reflections of real life, including the hilarious scene “My Dad at Panda Express,” which features an angry father chewing out a young and confused Panda Express employee for neglecting to save any orange chicken for him.

Music accompanies every scene, and many sketches are musical in nature. For example, “Kool-Yummm” is a lyrical ode to Kool-Aid and features a hip-hop jam from the big red pitcher himself, the Kool-Aid Man.

As mentioned, the comedy captures the surreal minds of children in a way that celebrates their imaginations. That's Weird, Grandma - Barrel of Monkeys - Photo by Erich Nerger (4)You’re not laughing at them; you’re laughing with them. For instance, “W-I-A-R-D” is a bewildering scene about three girls, one of which is named Monkey, who find a note on the ground. What does the note say? “It say Jogococo.” Is this explained? No. Does it need an explanation? No. This is an unfiltered reflection of the hyperactive imaginations that rises out of the minds of babes, and that is satisfying enough.

The show wouldn’t be as amazing if it wasn’t for the talented cast, many of whom received training at the aforementioned comedy powerhouses. Their energy is big,; their commitment is strong; and their singing abilities are solid. Two of the cast members even swapped out seats at the piano to provide the accompaniment.

That’s Weird, Grandma is appropriate for all ages and has mass appeal. Scripts are tweaked so that some subtle jokes for the adults are thrown in, but the material in general is the stuff that everyone can relate to, from sisters ruining lives to parents ignoring children.

If you’re looking for something beyond Second City’s political humor, iO’s long-form improv and the Annoyance’s in-your-face comedy, That’s Weird, Grandma fills a Dadaist niche all its own that is much more than child’s play.

 

Rating: ★★★★

 A scene from the story 'Big Riders' from 'That's Weird, Grandma'

Performance Dates, Times and Location

"That’s Weird, Grandma" is currently running Sunday afternoons at 2 PM. Our Sunday matinee shows continue through April 4, and our 8 PM Monday night shows return on March 15.

The show runs a little over an hour.

"That’s Weird, Grandma" is presented at the  Neo Futurists Theatre, located at 5153 N. Ashland Ave., on the corner of Ashland and Foster in Chicago.

That's Weird, Grandma - Barrel of Monkeys - Photo by Erich Nerger (3) Kids and actors join in the fun during a public school performance.

Billy Elliot launches first webisode – watch it now!

Featuring Elton John and the 4 Billys

 

This first Billy Elliot webisode features interviews with Elton John (music), Stephen Daldry (director) and the four young stars rotating in the role of ‘Billy’ – Tommy Batchelor, Giuseppe Bausilio, Cesar Corrales and JP Viernes.

 

Find out why the producers chose Chicago for the first U.S. production outside of Broadway and what makes Chicago such an incredible city for live theatre.

Additional webisodes will be released in March and April to introduce the cast, explore rehearsals, audience reactions, opening night and more, giving viewers around the world a chance to connect with this hit musical as it begins its run in Chicago.

More information regarding the production available after the fold.

 

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REVIEW: Aelita and Shiny Boxes (Dream Theatre)

More work-in-progress than job-well-done

shinyboxes

 

Dream Theatre presents:

Aelita and Shiny Boxes

 

by Bil Gaines and Mishelle Renee Apalategui
directed and designed by Anna Weiler
through February 21st (more info)

review by Aggie Hewitt

Aelita and Shiny Boxes are two original one acts by young playwrights Bil Gaines and Mishelle Renee Apalategui, presently premiering at the Dream Theatre. This theater company, which produces only original work, has never before done a show written by anyone other than the artistic director, Jeremy Menekseoglu.

aelitaAelita, by Bil Gaines, is an allegorical story about a young woman who has to kill in order to free her soul. It’s a short play that dives right into big questions about god, violence, and love, while skipping details like relationships and characters, in a quasi postmodern style. The characters are very loose sketches of actual people, often speaking in bold, fragmented ideas rather than traditional dialogical thoughts. They seem to have a minimal point of view in order to bring home philosophical points of the play, and this break down in speech seems to have affected the opinions of the actors. The singular exception is Giau Truong as Amboy, the giant, who is older than death. This is the most clearly written character, and Truong is a charming and amenable actor that is fun to watch. This not totally lacking in humor, Aelita takes itself pretty seriously. The whole production leads up to a moral at the end which is always a tough sell, especially from a young playwright. 

Shiny Boxes, written by Mishelle Renee Apalategui is a tightly structured and nicely staged play about haunting childhood memories and the traumatic transition into adulthood. The set needed for this avant-garde piece is perfect for companies working with smaller budgets, as it uses inexpensive, everyday items to create the suggestion of a nineteen-year-old’s apartment and a child’s birthday party. A multi-colored metallic “happy birthday” banner hangs from the wall, and when the light hits it, it creates an amazing sparkling effect that is as full of nostalgia as the writer intended. The playwright does a nice job of weaving in and out of flashbacks, but this play, like Aelita (maybe even more so) takes itself a little too seriously, and the subject matter verges on melodrama.

As a whole, these plays both possess a didactic, college theater feel. The work and themes show promise.  No doubt both playwrights will grow and mature – creating amazing work in the future, but for now, however, the writing veers towards the immature.

SPECIAL NOTE: Because of a medical emergency that took place on stage during opening weekend, I saw this play twice. I have to make a mention on how professionally and seamlessly the actors improvised and performed the second half of the play without a key actor. The work was so committed that I could not tell that anything was wrong until I received a phone call from the executive director the next day. Another mention to the poor actress who fell ill, her performance while sick was so good, again I had no idea that anything was wrong. Bravo to the cast.

 

Rating: ★★

 

Performances occur Thursday, February 4 through Sunday, February 21 at Dream Theatre 556 W 18th Street.  Performances run Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00PM, and Sundays at 7:00 PM. Street Parking is available.

Tickets are $15-$18, 773-552-8616 / annainthedarkness@gmail.com

aelita_web 

AELITA & SHINY BOXES is a double feature of world premiere plays directed and designed by Dream Theatre Company member Anna Weiler (Somewhere In Texas). Dream Theatre Company invites two new playwrights, Bil Gaines and Mishelle Apalategui. Each writer has a unique style that complements the Dream Theatre Company tradition of high art. Featuring Dream Theatre Company members: Giau Truong, Megan Merrill and Judith Lesser and introducing: Chad Sheveland, Meredith Rae Lyons, Alicia Reese, Sean Murphy and Zach Livingston. Featuring soundtrack music written by Oh My God, Abraham Levitan and Coehlo. Photographs by Giau Truong. Graphic design by Lou Rocco Centrella.