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Theater Review:

"THAT’S WEIRD, GRANDMA," Barrel of Monkeys at The Neo-Futurarium


Those lamenting the lack of imaginative new work in the professional theater realm (particularly along the revival-racked Great White Way) might want to head over to The Neo-Futurarium on a Monday night and check out Barrel of Monkeys’ endlessly inventive series of original vignettes titled "That’s Weird, Grandma." And where did BOM’s energetic founders Halena Kays and Erica Rosenfeld find such heartfelt material? They and their dedicated ensemble of actors, directors and designers went into Chicago public elementary schools and encouraged youngsters to write whatever popped into their minds and/or draw their own humorous and poignant tales.

This unique four-year-old educational troupe conducts six-week creative writing residencies in grammar schools. The touching and madcap stories their young charges create are then adapted for the stage by BOM’s adult artists and performed as a sketch comedy appropriate for audiences of all ages. So not only are these young scribes being validated; they are being celebrated and loudly appreciated for their insights and uninhibited perceptions of the world.

"That’s Weird, Grandma" features BOM’s favorite stories and songs from its past three years of school residencies. The show changes weekly as sketches are added or cut depending on audience comments. On the night I attended, the mood was especially zany and festive. The wildly innovative staging involved 20 professional theater artists belting out their enthusiasm for a project they wholeheartedly believed in. Their charisma and multifaceted talents never waned during this riotous one-hour showcase.

The ensemble has ingeniously transformed these honest, stream-of-consciousness pieces into miniature epiphanies. Each piece is sharply and economically edited, and the performances foster a bold anthropomorphic hilarity, with actors playing clocks, sandwiches and bats. Kays directs her fearless actors with a delightful mix of earnestness, innocence and wry satire. And Molly Brennan’s whimsical puppets take on a melodramatic life of their own.
Kristie Koehler is particularly versatile in multiple roles that range from a grandmother reenacting how she lost her two front teeth in gym class (written by Maria Vanegas) to a spunky cowgirl singing about a spaceship that landed in Texas (written by Jefrye Vazquez). For the latter sketch, the aliens attack St. Louis, prompting Roger Ainslie’s clever lyrics of "St. Louis is put out of its Missouri." Eric Silverberg portrays "Mikey the Dracula" (who goes to Egypt to hang out with Jonathan Mastro’s tough-talkin’ Mummy) with a sweet sense of desperation.

In fact, the entire cast demonstrates its agility at physical comedy, impersonations, vast vocal ranges and mastery of just about every theatrical style, including a booming Kabuki version of Angela Calderon’s story, "How the Sun Got to Space."

Other standouts include Jeremy Knudsen’s "Deadly Food," in which a mad scientist injects Subway sandwiches with nuclear power and aims them toward Russia; Mastro’s smart and suggestive Beat-inspired musical interpretation of Tiffany Moore’s "The Dog Who Loved Water"; an absurdist take on Robert Jones’ surreal story, "What If I Could Lick My Face Off?"; and a rousing blues finale (with an operatic interlude) of Darrel Lockett’s "Dirty Man," about a vagrant tormented by a "black knight" who tosses tacks on the sidewalk.

Barrel of Monkeys offer up a barrel of laughs in a retrospective that’s part pep rally, part musical theater extravaganza – and one of the most real, uplifting and engaging theatrical experiences in town.•

"That’s Weird, Grandma" runs Mondays at 9 p.m. through the month of July – and is scheduled to pick up in September as an open run – at The Neo-Futurarium, 5152 N. Ashland. Tickets: $5-$7. Call 312-409-1954.

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