Directed by Geoff Rice
Produced by Barrel of Monkeys
Playing at the Neo-Futurist Theater, Chicago
One of the longest-running features in Chicago theatre is the Barrel of Monkeys revue entitled That’s Weird, Grandma. This education-focused ensemble teaches elementary schoolers to write their own stories, which the company then acts out. The organization mostly serves public schools on the south and west sides, and also conducts programs with the Chicago Park District. If you’re curious about their work, you can see public performances twice a week. The stories, which are provided in their original form in the program, range from adorable to incomprehensible, and are all done in a spirit of great fun.
The current incarnation of That’s Weird, Grandma, as the title states, has the distinction of being performed entirely through song. There are thirteen incredibly energetic ensemble members who play dozens of characters in fifteen stories, while also taking turns at the keyboard. Following the performance, audience members are allowed to vote on which stories they want to see retained, and others get cycled out. Promotional materials say that some stories have been flitting in and out of revues since Barrel of Monkeys was founded in 1997. With that in mind, I was impressed by the consistently high quality of performance on opening night. Each story has been embellished with rhyming lyrics, which the ensemble sings them with charming humor. This year’s musical revue also adds transitional dialogue between the scenes, which adds focus to the most bizarre pieces, and keeps the production’s energy fluid.
Now that the first children mentored by Barrel of Monkeys are young adults, the longtime Barrel of Monkeys members can see their work paying off. Following the conclusion of this year’s musical revue, there will be special anniversary performances on April 17 at 2:00 pm and April 18 at 8:00 pm. Before then, however, if you have a child with a particularly musical imagination, you should check out the current production, which provides measure and structure to an otherwise freewheeling form. Lest adults have any concerns over how much fun this will be for the whole family, they may rest assured that the ensemble make plenty of wry remarks about audience habits which are sure to earn a few (guilty) chuckles from experienced theatre-goers. It’s also a pleasure to see how creative the cast is with just a few simple props and costume pieces. For the low price of admission, grown-ups can feel good about supporting this program, and enjoy themselves by indulging in a bit of whimsy. Kids are sure to have a blast.
Reviewed March 21, 2016
Playing at the Neo-Futurist Theater, 5153 N Ashland Ave, Chicago. Performances are Sundays at 2:00 pm and Monday at 8:00 pm through April 11. Running time is seventy minutes.