By Jane Recker
Kids say the darndest things. A quick search on the web of “craziest things kids have said” brings up stories of children hoping their expectant mothers will give birth to Batman instead of a little sister, of being terribly disappointed their phone didn’t fly when it was put on airplane mode and of nicknaming their parent “my tasty mango.”
Barrel of Monkeys makes the wild brainchildren of tykes come to life onstage in their 18th production of That’s Weird Grandma: Stories that Sing and Dance. For nearly two decades, Barrel of Monkeys has partnered with Chicago Public Schools to lead creative writing workshops with elementary school students. BOM then selects their favorite stories created in the classroom and performs them, first for the students, then for the public.
The result is a hilarious, hour-long show that’s perfect for the whole family. Since the source material is written by children, all of the humor in the show is appropriate for audience members of all ages. And since all of the performers are adults, there are plenty of grown-up bits throughout. A sketch about Malcolm X fighting zombies with karate is engaging for children in its own right, and the peppering of direct Malcolm X quotes that are somehow made to pertain to total zombie destruction are a clever delight for mature viewers.
That’s not to say all of the writing is smart, far from it. These are 8-year-old playwrights, after all. But to make them anything other than what they are would be to devalue the beautiful mystery of a child’s mind. And who said writing had to be quick and clever to be funny anyway? John Mulaney’s “Lobster Diner” bit on SNL was far from incisive, yet was one of the show’s most popular sketches from the last few years. Sometimes we adults need to remember the joy of being a child and laugh at the stupidity of our surroundings.
Case in point, one of the best-received scenes of the evening was a short, two-minute bit about the floor peeing in the pool. Yes, you read that right. No, there’s not much more to it. The student’s original story in the program was almost incomprehensible, but, when set by BOM with interpretive ribbon dancing and keening actors set to the music of Enya, the weirdness of it all settles into the room and becomes simply hysterical.
The show puts the audience back into the mind of a child and elucidates some of the magic of the world we adults so often overlook. In a sketch called “Evil Devil Printer,” a child attempts to print just one photo of a sloth and is instead bombarded by hundreds of blank pages shot out by the cursed machine. What would be a technical nuisance for an adult is a living nightmare for a child, as made clear by the robed chorus in the background yowling “Evil Devil Printer” ala Dies Irae and whipping sheets into the air.
And sometimes, the innocence and unabashed clarity of youth allows children to see the world much better than we like to believe they do. In the sketch “The IRS Moles,” a whole community comes under attack when “moles” from the IRS come to take every last penny and belonging they have. Clearly, this was written by a child who has been exposed to some of the hardships of working adults (especially those subject to Illinois’ unforgiving state tax). We’d like to think the intricacies of income tax and living paycheck to paycheck go over children’s heads, but their minds can be steel traps. They pick up on our cares and worries and make them their own.
The reactions of children are often representative of our organic feelings we hide behind our adult facades. When faced with an audit, we may comply with paperwork and receipts, but inside we grumble about the money-pinching dirt dwellers come to take every last one of our hard earned pennies. That’s Weird Grandma may be marketed as a children’s show, but it’s really a people’s show, eliciting the child in all of us.
Barrel of Monkeys presents “That’s Weird Grandma” through May 25 at the Neo-Futurist Theater, 5153 N. Ashland Ave., Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.