By J. Scott Hill
The Neo-Futurarium is one of the protected wild spaces of the arts in Chicago. Within this maze of a theatre, some tremendous performers can be observed in their natural habitat. On Monday nights, when the Neo-Futurists are allowed to roam off the preserve, the space houses a menagerie of monkeys — Barrel of Monkeys. Barrel of Monkeys’s long-running show That’s Weird, Grandma feels at home in the Neo-Futurarium, as it is certainly a related species to the Neos’ long-running show Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. Both shows feature multiple short plays. In both shows, some new plays are added and some old plays are retired each week. Both shows are high-energy, joyous, and unpredictable. Above all, both shows are rooted in ingenious writing.
The most striking difference between the Neos’ Too Much Light and Barrel of Monkeys’s That’s Weird, Grandma is that That’s Weird, Grandma is written by schoolchildren.
Foremost, Barrel of Monkeys is dedicated to arts education. Specifically, Barrel of Monkeys works with low-income and under-served third-through-fifth graders in Chicago Public Schools and at after-school programs. It is the stories by these children that are adapted into the short plays that comprise That’s Weird, Grandma. Some of these stories are liberally adapted for the stage, some are transformed into songs, and some are performed verbatim, but none lose the spirit or the language of the original story (the audience is even asked to follow along with the original texts, which are included in the program).
For the next couple of months, That’s Weird, Grandma has become Chicago’s Weird, Grandma, in honor of all the other Chicago theatre companies that are providing guest adaptations of some of the stories, in celebration of the show’s tenth anniversary.
The special guests throughout the run of Chicago’s Weird, Grandma are a diverse group of some of the top talent in Chicago theatre, including The Hypocrites, Lookingglass Theatre Company, Noah Ginex Puppet Company, and WildClaw Theatre. On opening night, the guest adapters/performers were House Theatre Chicago and Steppenwolf’s mighty Ora Jones.
Chicago’s Weird, Grandma, being fringe theatre by at-risk kids from schools in low-income neighborhoods, may be the most worthwhile arts outreach program in the city of Chicago, so much so that the performance itself might seem incidental — merely the inevitable, inconsequential product of an amazing process. Barrel of Monkeys, however, does not settle for a noble process without an equally noble product. In other words, Chicago’s Weird, Grandma totally kicks butt (I said butt).
Chicago’s Weird, Grandma is directed by Barrel of Monkeys’s Artistic Director, Chicago’s mistress of mayhem, Molly Brennan. Molly Brennan is to Chicago theatre what Bill Irwin was to New York theatre thirty years ago: the driving force behind a renaissance for clowning and variety performance. Brennan’s directorial hand bashes the audience upside the head with a sock full of childlike glee. In-your-face theatre has never been this explicitly happy. Edgy and children’s theatre are terms that do not usually butt up against each other in a review (I said butt again), but Molly Brennan-led Chicago’s Weird, Grandma is edgy children’s theatre that rivals anything done by and for grown-ups that comes out of those larger purveyors of Chicago-style sketch comedy (I’m looking at YOU, Second City).
The amazing writing in Chicago’s Weird, Grandma includes a story about ugly twin sisters who are both vying for the title of Ugliest Girl in the Universe, written by Alondro P. of Columbia Explorers Academy and performed by the ensemble. There was a triptych of epistolary stories, told from the perspective of one inanimate object to another, written by William K., Nick, and Sydney V. of Pritzker School, and performed by Ora Jones wearing footie pajamas given to her by her sister for Christmas. As a parent of a school-aged kid who has been standardized-tested nigh unto insanity, I found that the story “The ISAT Werewolf Day,” by Javohn B. of Dixon Elementary School, struck a feral and hilarious nerve as sharply as a number two pencil (I said number two).
This is as talented and cohesive an ensemble as I have ever seen in sketch comedy, anywhere. By mentioning a few ensemble members who stood out, I would be doing an injustice to the rest. The program lists Michelle Alba, Molly Brennan, Linsey Falls, Maggie Fullilove Nugent, Nick Hart, Diana Lawrence, Dan Rumney, Zoe Schwartz, Jeff Trainor, Dixie Belinda Uffelman, and Rachel Wilson. That adds up to more names than there were Barrel of Monkeys performers onstage opening night, but everyone onstage opening night rocked it hard.
With an ever-changing lineup of stories, and new special guests each week, Chicago’s Weird, Grandma puts a largely new show on display every Monday night. With the incredible writing of some Chicago Public School kids, and ensemble members talented enough to handle the genius stories written for them to perform, Barrel of Monkeys has had success with That’s Weird, Grandma that every outreach program and every sketch comedy troupe in Chicago would do well to ape. Chicago’s Weird, Grandma, a sub-species of That’s Weird Grandma, comes with all of the usual attributes, but also allows a few of Chicago’s theatre elite to attempt, for one evening, the brilliance that Barrel of Monkeys stampedes through the hearts of its audience Monday night after Monday night.
(“Chicago’s Weird, Grandma,” presented by Barrel of Monkeys runs Mondays at 8:00 p.m. at The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland, Chicago.)
For tickets, reservations or information call 312-409-1954 or visit
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