By Ian Rigg
The world is eager to eradicate our inner-child.
Visit the bohemian haven of the Neo-Futurists, head up the rustic stairs, past the unique hall of presidential portraits, meander through a whimsical waiting room, and you’ll find the child within you singing.
Barrel of Monkeys’ That’s Weird, Grandma: Stories That Groove is entertainment by children, performed by adults. Each short play is written by a young author—specifically, Chicago public elementary school kids in partnership with Barrel of Monkeys’ creative writing residencies. The workshops generate more than 300 stories that Barrel of Monkeys performs for the students in their own schools, and 175 that they put up for general public performances.
And the performances are rapturous, wholesome fun. The offbeat and on-point cast of Jennifer Allman, Juanita Andersen, Barry Irving, Jen Johnson, Krista Mickelson, Devin Middleton, Mari Marroquin, Jon Schneidman and Rachel Wilson offer a riotous blend of quirky comedy and poignant moments. The actors have a tongue-in-cheek awareness of the material, but it is performed with an utterly earnest conviction that warms hearts as it simultaneously splits sides. The line-up of the revue changes each week (with audience input for favorites to save), so no two shows are alike. And indeed, there is certainly no other kind of show in Chicago quite like it.
Director Eunice Woods (who on press opening filled in and brought her considerable acting talents to groove about the stage) finds the beating heart of hilarity in every story. From a silent moving tableau parody of a “troubled young girl finds peace by riding a horse” movie set to Miley Cyrus’s “The Climb,” to Prince holding a concert inside a monster’s belly, to a space-opera about a pack of dogs from the stars set to conquer the Earth and even a roost of killer chicken wings clucking along to “O Fortuna,” the performance delights with every change of story.
And music director Jon Schneidman and company cook up some bonafide earworms. The catchy tunes about a dessert thief who lives in a sewer of sweetness (with a monkey as his butler), a rock concept album about the Island of Light vs. the Island of Darkness and the touching tale of a young boy’s first kiss Shidai, is a testament to Barrel of Monkeys’ song-writing ability, but also the burgeoning writing talent of young artists.
Barrel of Monkeys brings its A-game every week. That’s not just devotion to the craft: it’s devotion to the cause.
And that cause, to foster a love of art in children, to get their voices heard, couldn’t be a more important one right now. That’s Weird, Grandma: Stories That Groove is a reminder to cherish storytelling, and perhaps most importantly (as the message at the top of the stairs says): Seek joy.
Barrel of Monkeys presents “That’s Weird, Grandma: Stories That Groove,” through April 9 at the Neo-Futurist Theater, 5153 N. Ashland Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available available here.