Review: Performing Tonight! Liza Minnelli’s Daughter (Neo-Futurists)

     
     

Art, Life, Reality, Blurred Lines, and Who’s Daddy?

     
     

Joseph Schupbach, Mary Fons and Donnell Williams in 'Performing Tonight: Liza Minnelli's Daughter" at Neo-Futurists

  
The Neo-Futurists present
     
  
Performing Tonight:
   
    Liza Minnelli’s Daughter
  
  
Written by Mary Fons
Directed by Sonja Moser
at The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland (map)
through June 4  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

The liner notes for Performing Tonight: Liza Minnelli’s Daughter claim that this show is much more than an impression, dance numbers, and a revue. Playwright Mary Fons claims that this is a reckoning. I am not sure for whom the reckoning tolls. Ms. Fons is a startling likeness of Liza Minnelli circa "Cabaret". The show opens with her giving a history of her love for lace-up platform ballet slippers. From there Fons spins a dizzying tale of adoration that turns into an identity crisis whereupon she rejects all that has hurt her and reinvents herself as Mary Minnelli.

Mary Fons as Liza Minnelli's daughter Mary, from Neo-Futurists' "Performing Tonight: Liza Minnelli's Daughter".Mary Minnelli wants to make us believe a fable from the cult of celebrity. She claims to be a Garland as in Judy who came from crazy Mama Gumm. There is plenty of crazy to go around as the world of Mary Minnelli is revealed. Liza Minnelli’s Daughter has a wonderful Greek Chorus holding up the mirror of truth and pain throughout the performance. Donnell Williams and Joseph Schupbach are the Fosse dancers, the wardrobe masters, the devil’s advocates holding the glaring spotlight, and the friends who talk Mary Minnelli off of the ledge.

The choreography is really quite good. Ms. Fons has the lithe synchronized moves, jazz hands, and long legs like Minnelli. Donnell Williams fits the physicality of a Fosse dancer and does a smashup Judy Garland with only a little black dress as the drag. The comedy is written with a dark and sardonic edge. Mary Minnelli sings a tribute to Liza who sang a tribute to her mother Judy Garland. Donnell brings out a tiny child’s piano to accompany the recorded soundtrack. The song is a replay of Liza singing "Mammy" to Judy Garland. It should be revealed that Donnell is Black and gamely plays along until the song ends. He utters one line-"Mammy"-accompanied by a look that says ‘seriously girlfriend…Mammy?’ I found it hysterical and indicative of the wonderful chemistry of this cast.

Joseph Schupbach plays the other half of Team Mary Minnelli. He is quite a wonderful dancer and has a brilliant comic presence as Mary’s best gay boyfriend. It is brilliant casting to have Schupbach juxtaposed to Williams. Joseph has as slight paunch and wears suspenders but has all of the moves down. His character is not only a Greek Chorus member but an alter ego to Mary Minnelli.  Joseph seems like the kid from Iowa who puts on a show in the barn with the neighborhood kids just like Judy and Mickey. He has some great comments that drip with just enough acid to etch painful memories in Mary Minnelli’s psyche.

There are actually many similarities between Mary Fons and Liza Minnelli other than the startling looks. Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli made legendary bad choices in husbands. The exes were overbearing, codependent , and quite often gay. Mother and daughter struggled with health problems and addictions in mammoth proportions. Liza Minnelli had several miscarriages and is asked by Geraldo Rivera (he of the cult of celebrity news) if she wants children even after all that happens. There it is projected onto a bulb lined screen larger than life and was it just me or did everyone still flinch at Rivera’s insensitive questioning in the name of ‘journalism’? It is both good and not so good that Fons turns the microscope on her personal health crises. It is horrible to hear of her parallel suffering with her ‘mother’ Liza in that she cannot have children. She tells of extended stays at the famed Mayo Clinic where she spies upon the celebrity ward of the hospital. It is uncomfortable to hear Fons speak of the Egyptian cotton sheets and custom meals in the celebrity ward. I flinched at the comment that ‘surely Liza Minnelli would be in the celebrity ward’ at Mayo. Suffering becomes a touchstone that goes on for way too long and drags the last part of Act I.

Joseph Schupbach, Mary Fons and Donnell Williams in 'Performing Tonight: Liza Minnelli's Daughter" at Neo-Futurists

It was enough to know that Ms. Fons shares an inability to have children and other medical crises with Liza Minnelli. It’s when she begins to draw the tabloid parallels wherein every detail is laid bare and devoured by a rabid public that I felt it went too far. Ms. Fons does not have a colon due to autoimmune disease. She recounts the pikes in her arms and near death experiences right out of the National Enquirer. It felt hammer handed after the third mention of the pikes in her arms and veins leading to her heart.

On the other hand Ms. Fons performs the transformation to Mary Minnelli with the same frantic and wonderfully over the top energy that Liza Minnelli seems to emanate. The drugged out days of Studio 54 are done in a wonderful dream sequence where members of the audience are invited to dance in the stage area. The wall is broken as they discuss whether or not they can really drink on stage and Fons gamely yells for the iced tea standing in for Jack Daniels and Splenda standing in for piles of cocaine. The references to Hedy Weiss’ remarks about the Neo-Futurists space being ‘a dump over a funeral home’ got to be a little tired as well. We get it. You all are kicking edgy in your face theatre butt and Weiss can suck it.

Fons’ performance is remarkable to watch just for the physicality of it. She is soaked in perspiration and it seems as if all of her nerves are exposed when she portrays Mary Minnelli trapped between realities. She manages to belt out some songs, run on a speeding treadmill, and recreate the "Cabaret" scene with updated music from the post modern icons-Madonna and Lady Gaga. It is a jaw dropping experience.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
   
   

Donnell Williams, Mary Fons and Joseph Schupbach in 'Performing Tonight: Liza Minnelli's Daughter" at Neo-Futurists

Performing Tonight: Liza Minnelli’s Daughter runs Thursdays , Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm through June 4th at The Neo-Futurarium at 5153 N. Ashland Ave. in Chicago.  Tickets are $15, $10 for students/seniors with ID, or pay-what-you-can on Thursdays. (Reserve tickets online).  Yes it really is over a funeral home but the brilliant creativity that is the life blood of the company gives off light and life!

  
  

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REVIEW: Laika: Dog In Space (The Neo-Futurists)

  
  

Too much quirk, not enough substance

  
  

 Rob Neill, Jill Beckman, Eevin Hartsough in Neo-Futurists' Laika: Dog In Space.  Photo by Lauren Sharpe

  
The Neo-Futurists present
   
Laika: Dog in Space
  
Written by Rob Neill, Eevin Hartsough and Jill Beckman
Directed by
Phil Ridarelli
Music by
Carl Riehl
at
The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland (map)
thru March 12  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

The Neo-Futurists are renowned for their experimental theater works, but the transfer of their New York branch’s Laika: Dog In Space tries too hard to be quirky and off-kilter, resulting in a scattershot production that is hard to connect with. Building on the true story of Laika, the first mammal sent into space, and incorporating elements of children’s story The Little Prince and cult classic television series “The Prisoner”, Laika: Dog In Space is intended to be a meditation on the nature of isolation, but the message gets lost in the execution. And while Neo-Futurist shows are often informal, they are usually not messy, which makes the unpolished presentation of Laika even more disappointing.

Jill Beckman, Eevin Hartsough, Rob Neill in scene from 'Laika: Dog in Space' at Neo-Futurists in Andersonville. Photo by Lauren Sharpe.For those unfamiliar, Laika was a stray dog that Russian scientists sent into space in Sputnik 2, making it the first mammal in orbit, but killing Laika in the process. Writer/performers Rob Neill, Eevin Hartsough, and Jill Beckman imagine that Laika lives on in “The Village” (pronounced “vill-AHj”) an isolated space rock where she is visited by a small fairy that tells stories to pass the time. While the fantastic elements of The Little Prince are apparent, the influence of “The Prisoner” is harder to grasp, beyond giving Laika’s rock the same name as the location of Patrick McGoohan’s Number 6 and putting the performers in white lab coats with numbers 1, 2, and 6 on them. A voice instructs the performers on what steps to take next, whether that is “Isolation Investigation,” “Prisoner Trajectory,” or “Storytime,” but the separate elements struggle to come together in a coherent manner.

The Neo-Futurist’s Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind (our review ★★★★), has given them a reputation for creating mini-plays that run the gamut from comic to serious to smashing a potato with a sledge hammer. Laika alters the format slightly by telling multiple stories that are connected through the common themes of space, isolation, and imagination, ranging from personal anecdotes from the actors, historical accounts of Laika’s origins, and rock and roll musical interludes. The musical scenes suffer from the volume of the band, which drowns out whatever the actors are singing whenever all four members are playing. Either the actors need to be amplified more, or the band needs to play quieter, a difficult task in the Neo-Futurists’ small space.

A heavier emphasis on technical aspects than the usual Neo-Futurists production means more opportunities for things to go wrong, and despite the casual atmosphere of the show, it’s difficult to overlook Laika’s technical issues. One TV screen displays a “Line In” box rather than the images of the other screens, the pulley rig for Laika’s Village set malfunctions at the end of the production, and an audience interaction portion involving cassette players and headphones is an ill-timed mess. By trying to fit too much, the individual parts suffer, yet despite Laika’s misgivings, when the actors get explicit about the intent of their production, the script finally clicks.

     
A scene from 'Laika: Dog in Space' at Neo-Futurists in Andersonville. Photo by Lauren Sharpe. A scene from 'Laika: Dog in Space' at Neo-Futurists in Andersonville. Photo by Lauren Sharpe.

Jill Beckman in scene from 'Laika: Dog in Space' at Neo-Futurists in Andersonville. Photo by Lauren Sharpe.

While I usually have issues with plays that don’t follow the “show, don’t tell” rule, Laika: Dog In Space needs those moments where the actors pause and explain just what is going on, otherwise the show makes no sense. The play’s themes of reality vs. imagination, fact vs. belief, and isolation vs. community become clear once the actors flat out say that those are the concepts they’re trying to get across, but I wish it were evident during the more abstract moments of the show. The production tries to create a sense of community within the room, whether it is through making borsch that the audience can all eat after the show or by pulling audience members on stage to drink Tang upside down, but these elements fail to enlighten the deeper message of the play. Despite being well-performed, the script needs a stronger focus and the technical aspects need to be cleaned up if Laika: Dog In Space hopes to truly take off.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Regular performances continue through March 12, playing Thurs/Fri/Sat at 8:00pm. Two Monday night performances: February 21 and 28 at 8:00 p.m.  Tickets are $15, $10 for students/seniors with ID, or pay-what-you-can on Thursdays. All performances take place at The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland.   Get your tickets now…

     
     

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REVIEW: Daredevils’ Hamlet (The Neo-Futurists)

 

“Jackass” Meets The Bard

 

 

Jay Torrence, John Pierson, Trevor Dawkins, Ryan Walters, Anthony Courser, Brennan Buhl - from Neo-Futurists' "Daredevil's Hamlet"

   
The Neo-Futurists present
  
Daredevils’ Hamlet
  
Written by Ryan Walters and ensemble
Directed by
Halena Kays
at
Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland (map)
through September 25  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Only in culture centers like Chicago could there be a theater audience savvy enough to completely comprehend this show’s connections between Shakespeare and professional wrestling, the indecisive Hamlet’s crisis of confidence and the endangered masculinity of modern metrosexuals; the actors’ own neuroses and the Shakespearean characters they’re most drawn to. We deserve this show, if only because it won’t be lost on us.

Ryan Walters, from Neo-Futurists' "Daredevil's Hamlet" In 2005 Ryan Walters’ band of jumpsuited or strait-jacketed daredevils created their first edition of exuberant “jackassery.” But, intent on putting statements behind their stunts, five years later the quintet are riffing on “Hamlet,” using their cartwheels, tumbling, acrobatics, and hoop diving to illustrate the melancholy Dane’s identity crisis and adding their own autobiographical confessions to this absorbing “afterword.” (Each gets to answer questions about their dads, whether they would avenge their father’s murder by exterminating their uncle, and whether they are men of action or men of thought.)

The audience is warmed up as an interactive game of “Four-Square” opens the inquiry. It’s followed by various action-oriented depictions of scenes from the tragedy: Young Ryan Walters rides a tricycle as he attempts a small-scale Knievel-like jump across a wooden ramp. (The exact link to Hamlet escaped me here except that he was also reciting the “What a piece of work is man!” speech.) The graveyard scene is depicted with the performers naked in black light with tiny skulls lit up as codpieces over their privates. Ophelia’s drowning occurs in a real flower-strewn trough, a kind of life-size baptismal font. Though the fight between Hamlet and Laertes is reduced to overhyped WWF combat, the sword fight finale is performed exactly as written because, of course, the daredevils can’t overdo the original when it comes to exaggerated overkill.

John Pierson, from Neo-Futurists' "Daredevil's Hamlet"

These 100 minutes teem with fascinating connections where art deconstructs art and life imitates itself. Buhl, stretching a bit, compares Hamlet’s pursuit of justice with his own memories of “wild play” in a kiddie pool that got out of control. Anthony Courser prefers to portray an action figure like Robin Hood whose black-and-white status as a legend is preferable to Hamlet’s moral ambiguity. John Pierson describes the fasting and sacrifices he intends to make throughout the show’s run (including sex and modern food). Jay Torrence is fascinating by Horatio’s loyalty to Hamlet and depicts it with some homoerotic interaction with Walters. Finally, the show’s conceiver, Ryan Walters, playing the pseudo crazy, roller-skating Prince of Denmark, eloquently soliloquizes on the transience of life and its poignant surrogate, the theater, as he bends over an audience member who he intends to never forget. There’s even a brief interlude in which an unnamed actress enters as Gertrude to make a rather convincing defense of Hamlet’s much maligned mother.

It’s not the sometimes indulgent, hit-and-run skits that convince here; they’re clever distractions within a larger illustrated lecture. What wears you down and finally wins you over is the fascinating totality of this free-form action portrait of a play that’s as seemingly inexhaustible as the sun. “Hamlet” and Hamlet are everything we can project onto them and Daredevil’s Hamlet exposes us every bit as much as it illuminates a rather old script.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Trevor Dawkins and Ryan Walters, from Neo Futurists' "Daredevil's Hamlet"

All photos by Candice Conner / Oomphotography

   

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The Neo-Futurists announce their 22nd Season

THE NEO-FUTURISTS ANNOUNCE THEIR 22nd SEASON OF ORIGINAL WORK

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Prime-Time Season

Prime-time shows run Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. at The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland (at Foster) in Andersonville. Tickets are $15, $10 for students/seniors with ID, or pay-what-you-can during previews and on Thursdays. For tickets or information, visit www.neofuturists.org or call The Neo-Futurist Hotline at 773-275-5255.

 

Aug 19 – Sept 25 Daredevils’ Hamlet
  Created and curated by Ryan Walters  (bio after the fold)
      
  Channeling the 2005 hit Daredevils, the men in jumpsuits take competition to a new level in this meta-destruction of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Director Halena Kays returns to direct this thematic adaptation of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, by challenging feats of revenge, passion, and failure. The Daredevils prove there’s no better way to feel alive than by exploring a show that deals with copious amounts of death.
     
   
Feb 5 – March 12 Laika Dog in Space
  by Rob Neill, Eevin Hartsough, Jill Beckman and Carl Riehl
    
  East meets Midwest when the NY Neos bring their 2009 Ontological Incubator hit to the Chicago stage. Part science lesson, part Russian folklore and part introspective interpretation, Laika Dog In Space uses original music, dance and puppetry to help tell the story of Laika, the first mammal in space, and to discuss the impact of her life. Arrive early to take advantage of a living installation takes the audience through various stations where they listen, confess, create and experiment. And of course, the step back in time to the mid-80’s Soviet space program wouldn’t be complete without a helping of borscht!
     
      
April 30 – June 4 Performing Tonight! Liza Minnelli’s Daughter
   Conceived by Mary Fons (bio after the fold)
     
  What would you do if you believed you were destined for greatness but fate screwed it up? Life is hard, and Mary knows it all too well, but she is positive that her one-woman theatrical spectacle (featuring a cast of three) is a one-way ticket to the extraordinary life that she was supposed to lead – life as the daughter of Broadway and big screen legend, Liza Minnelli. In Performing Tonight! Liza Minnelli’s Daughter, Mary Fons is Mary Minnelli, a woman with a shaky past, but a bright future. Enthusiasm, delusion, ambition and a little bit of obsession blur the lines of fact and fiction in the Neo-Futurist prime time season closer.
     
     
ONGOING SHOW Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind
  The Neo-Futurists’ signature show, performed since 1988, is the longest-running production in Chicago history. Too Much Light… is an ever-changing attempt to perform 30 plays in 60 minutes. Each week the ensemble adds between two and twelve new plays to the menu. Every performance creates an unreproducible, living-newspaper collage of the comic and tragic, the political and personal, the visceral and experimental.
   
  TMLMTBGB runs Fridays and Saturdays at 11:30pm, Sundays at 7pm, Tickets $9 plus the roll of a six-sided die (so $10-$15)

tmlbgb-ensemble Ensemble for Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind

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REVIEW: Crisis – A Musical Game Show (Neo-Futurists)

A tour de force of originality, wisdom and LOL’s

 

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Neo-Futurists present
 
Crisis (A Musical Game Show)
 
Created by John Pierson, Daniel Kerr-Hobert and Clifton Frei
at Neo-Futurists, 5153 N. Ashland (map)
through June 5th  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Robin Sneed

Is life rigged? Are we trapped in a massive capitalist game show in which the halfwits and the shrewd end up at the top with all the money while the intelligent and thoughtful are relegated to loser? In the Neo-Futurists’ brilliant original musical, Crisis – A Musical Game Show, you are left to trust or not, at a most pivotal time in US history, in what you see, what you read, what you hear, and what you think.

CRISIS vert In the grand tradition of true Neo-Futurist theater, which never seeks to suspend disbelief, we must question whether this outrageously well performed set up is truly as advertised. Are those audience members taking scantron tests before the show truly scoring well on the quiz, and thus asked to participate? Is it a lottery? Are the participants pre-chosen? Are you simply relegated to loser by default of the process? Are you feeling so powerless over so many crises in the world that you hand your money over to organizations simply because they promise to find the cure, the solution, to right the wrong? Is capitalism really just a system in which blind faith is a given because so many have been trained to trust authority and never ask questions? A system in which the truly blind are preyed upon by the self-proclaimed altruist  as well as the openly greedy? Trusting others is trusting yourself, Crisis sings to us. Can you be trusted? 

Crisis is a tour de force of originality, energy, skill, timing, and intelligence.  One must follow along at a pace or be left behind, duped into the fast flashing ‘rules’ of a game show setting.  The beauty of this genre is that the performers never condescend. They are in this with you, even as they never let up for two hours of rapid fire intellectual and emotional sleight of hand. There is a simple humility that is natural to this form of theater, and it shines in this cast. After all, the creators of Crisis have lived the American experience and take no outward pride in having figured it out while showing the audience just how willingly we continue to believe the fantasy of the seemingly altruistic money giver, maker and taker,  all in one, brought to us by the television culture that feeds it.

In the deep center of this piece, the three hosts and creators of Crisis  – John Pierson, Daniel Kerr-Hobert and Clifton Frei – tell the truth. They tell the truth through the wild energy they harness and give to the audience. This is not the staid phone-it-in performance set. They are present, engaged, and true to themselves as artists.  If you believe in nothing about our current system by the end of this show, you will believe in gift. You will believe there is theatre in Chicago worth seeing and being a part of. You will get far more than you pay for.  And you will laugh. When is the last time you went to the theater and laughed for two hours?

The hosts, although running the show, are still deeply embedded in the ensemble, sending their force through it. One gets the feeling there is nothing these three can’t catch, save, or recover from.  The rest of the ensemble is tight, on time, connected and hilarious, using an impressive range of skill in commedia dell’arte. The commercials throughout the show from local businesses bring the reality of our current economic state right through the doors in real time with style and wit. The live band is fully a part of the ensemble, highly skilled, funny, and plain cool.

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To win  at this game is simple. Pretend to be annoyed with and above the game. Be very adept at unlocking cabinets, finding the money inside, and shredding documents. Admit in a moment of ‘raw honesty’ to purposely leading your own sibling to physical injury while still saying he isn‘t very bright, and then cover it all over with a high paying job that makes you seem as if you are helping others.  Misrepresent your job as research in the beginning in an attempt to sound as if it carries a scientific basis, then conveniently pull the heartstrings of your audience by bringing attention to a cause or illness for which there is no cure or solution, and for which you have done no actual research, and you just won yourself lots of money. Unfortunately, this describes the directors of too many non-profits to numerate, and makes the openly greedy Wall Street CEO look honest by comparison.

As this is a review of neo-futurist theatre, I am required by participation to disclose the whole truth about my experience Saturday night, and so I will. The Neo-Futurists are a national treasure, supported in part by National Endowment and The Illinois Arts Council. The truth is, it has been a very long time since I have seen one of our true jewel boxes of the arts in this country. These are tax and patronage dollars being spent the way I want them spent: an incredibly high self-motivated standard of performance in an all at once humble and elegant space, where truth through creative expression still wins.

  
   
Rating: ★★★★
 
 

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Cast and Crew

The Hosts: John Pierson, Dan Kerr-Hobert, Clifton Frei

The Musicians: John Szymanski, Curtis Williams, John Bliss

The Question Designers: Evan Hanover, Bilal Dardai

The Commercial Writing Staff: Megan Mercier, Steve Heisler

  
  

REVIEW: Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind (Neo-Futurists)

21-Year old show is still as fresh as ever

 

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Neo-Futurists present
 
Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind
 
at The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland (map)
Open Run (more info)

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind is more than just a series of 30 plays in 60 minutes. It’s also more than Chicago’s longest running production, celebrating its 21st anniversary in late 2009. Too Much Light is a complete and utter oddity.

new jump What other show can consistently sell out every performance to an audience that would properly be characterized as non-theatergoing? At the performance I saw, there were a motley assortment of college students, teenagers and sweatpants-clad parents. It looked a lot more like the type of crowd you’d see lining up for the most recent Hollywood blockbuster than a trip down a surrealist, dada rabbit hole.

But the throngs of people do come, and what they witness is one of the most out there and experimental shows in the city. And what’s even more remarkable is that they thoroughly enjoy it.

Maybe it has to do with the fact that the show is much more than a show. It is an ideology as well. Neo-Futurism is a contemporary style modeled after the Italian Futurists. These Futurists worked in all sorts of media from painting to music to theatre. In the same vein as Dadaism, Futurism sought to be the anti-art, casting off the shackles of the past to welcome a new aesthetic that looked toward the future, taking influences from technology and industry.

Although Neo-Futurism doesn’t seem to take itself as seriously as some of its Italian forbearers, it still retains its absurdist bent and deeply personal expression. In fact, a tenant of Too Much Light is that everything the audience witnesses is real. Every actor plays himself and only himself and all scenes are set in the very theater on the very stage where the actors are performing.

The show is chockfull of gimmicks, many of which are interactive, which gives it its high energy and spontaneity. To enter the theater, each audience member must roll a die. Add nine to the die roll, and that’s what you pay. As you enter, you’re asked your name by a performer who completely ignores your answer and scribbles a random word on a nametag, which you must wear throughout the duration of the show. (My name was “inning.”)

A clothesline hangs from the ceiling above the stage. Hanging from the line are 30 sheets of paper, each labeled with a number. Audience members are handed a “menu” of plays, each written by and to be performed by the cast. The audience is instructed to shout out a number at the end of a scene. Whatever number is heard first is the next play that is performed. A timer on the wall ticks away for an hour. The goal is to complete all 30 pieces before the alarm sounds.

Each week some old sketches are slotted out and new plays are written. After about a month, all old scenes have cycled out of the menu and a completely new show is staged.

 

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There is a lot of expectation for Too Much Light to be a comedy. And at times it does deliver the funny. For example, one play titled “Curtains: The NeoFuturist Mascot” featured a competition to pick a mascot for the show. A boy from the audience was chosen and so the performers dressed him up with a cape, a fuzzy tail and a cardboard box decorated like a cow’s head.

Yet, this is not iO or Second City. The aim of the Neo-Futurists isn’t to showcase a series of knee-slapping sketches. It’s pure artistic expression, a sort of mental and emotional purging for the performers that, quite often, resonates in some way with the audience. Whether this resonance is characterized by laughter or a somber silence depends on the scene. But there are typically plenty of both in a Too Much Light….. show.

And maybe that’s the appeal. Where else in Chicago can you see a crazy whirlwind of a show that makes you laugh, think, reflect and, at times, get all misty eyed? It’s a rollercoaster experience, and hopefully this ride will keep rumbling for years to come.

 
Rating: ★★★★
     

Logistics
All shows will be performed at The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland @ Foster. Click here for directions and a map. Tickets are $9 + the roll of a single six-sided die ($10 – $15, depending on your luck!)

Showtimes
Friday nights at 11:30pm (doors open at 11:00), Saturday nights at 11:30pm (doors open at 11:00), Sunday nights at 7:00pm (doors open at 6:30), 50 weeks a year! (We take off the very last two weekends of December each year.)
No reservations are accepted.  Heard about the big line that forms to get into TML, click here for Tips and FAQs on how to get into the show. Wanna volunteer for TML (and see the show for free)? Click here.

               

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.