An ensemble member walks across the stage at The Neofuturarium to introduce the next short play in the line-up. She gives us the name of the author and what elementary school they attend, but before she can give us the title an audience member interrupts her. He is front row, wearing a newsboy cap, and between the ages of two and three. He shouts something in toddler language and without missing a beat, the ensemble member says, “Yes! Exactly! The title of the piece is The Crazy Old People.” The audience laughs, and the six-year-old in front of me turns around to see if I’m laughing too, like she has been doing for the entire show.
This is some seriously relaxed theater.
That’s Weird, Grandma is the weekly show of Barrel of Monkeys, a company comprised of actor/educators who teach creative writing workshops in under-served Chicago Public Schools. The residencies teach students to write in different genres including autobiographical accounts, dialogue, and persuasive argument. The students’ writing is then lovingly adapted for the stage and performed in-school at the end of the residency. That’s Weird, Grandma engages the broader community by presenting a selection of the best stories from the company’s nineteen-year history. The opening number to the show puts it more concisely, “Kids write it. We do it. World saved.”
The show’s trimmings are simple, a curtain hanging center stage painted with comic book panels and what one can only assume are the most choice lines found in children’s’ stories over the years. Costume pieces are wrinkly and wigs are ratty in a chaotic way. It’s totally charming. The traveling-trunk-show aesthetic is supported by a troupe of multi-talented and incredibly musical performers who sing, dance, and play their way through the show.
The ensemble adapted the five-sentence story Running in the Snow into a mesmerizing modern dance piece performed by Elisa Carlson. The sentimentality of the dance piece perfectly balanced by the rest of the ensemble dressed in white paint suites and doing choreographed moves with silver ribbons representing snow.
Another crowd favorite was The Dumb Chicken, the title role brilliantly played by Linsey Falls and narrated/live-looped by Nick Hart. The plot is simple. There’s a dumb chicken. He eats gross stuff. And then, according to the author’s story printed in the program, “the chicen played in the tolit and drowed in the tolit [sic].” This was enough for the six-year-old girl in front of me and the thirty-something dad in the front row, to laugh so hard they folded in half. When the story took a meta-turn and the Chicken was so dumb that he didn’t die and the play couldn’t end, both the boy and his mom in the front row wiped tears from their eyes. This is what is special about BOM. They resist the Pixar trick of telling stories for kids while slipping in some jokes for parents. Instead, they make shows where everything is for everyone and all the age groups are laughing together.
But maybe you’re thinking to yourself, “Yeah, yeah, yeah kids are cute and their writing is funny. But I want to feel something when I go to the theater. I wanna walk away talking about issues.” Ok, buddy. I feel you. And BOM feels you too. There’s a persuasive argument piece that will give you just that. The thesis of the untitled piece reads, “I believe that Mexican people could [sic] cross the border into the U.S.” And in three poignant reasons a grade-schooler from the Avondale-Logandale school puts a face on immigration and the fear that children living in a mixed-status family experience, and how that shapes a unique American experience.
While the mission of BOM is impressive and inspiring, the hour-long show would benefit from less explanation of what the company does at the top of the show. The “school-residencies-to-adaptation-of-stories-to-performance-of-stories” break-down is first explained during the last in a series of pre-show “flight announcements” and is accompanied by a pantomime of the process. Next comes the musical number that starts every show, and I’ve had the catchy jingle “Kids write it. We do it. World Saved.” stuck in my head since. And then again during the introduction to the first story we get another, shorter, re-cap of the process from the ensemble member. It would be more effective for the the show to begin with an explanation of the company’s process to teach the audience how to watch That’s Weird, Grandma, and then be book-ended by a reminder of why this is more than just a great show. Because it is.
If you’re into relaxed, hilarious, talent-studded shows and if you’re into saving the world, you’re gonna be into this show.
Barrel of Monkey’s That’s Weird, Grandma: Winter Wonderland Matinees runs through March 13, Sundays at 2 pm. That’s Weird, Grandma usually plays Monday nights at 8:00 pm at The Neo-Futurist Theater, 5153 N. Ashland. $6 kids $12 adults. Info and registrations: (312) 409-1954 or www.barrelofmonkeys.org.