By Ian Rigg
Chicago Theatre Works has proved to be master of immersive theatre experiences, and Flanagan’s Wake is another outstanding offering of outrageous comedic capers.
Where Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding invites guests into the crazy caricature of an Italian wedding, Flanagan’s Wake gathers theatregoers at a stereotypical staple of the Emerald Isle: the Irish wake. Patrons enter a realm of in-jokes and raise their glasses glass to the delightful deceased.
A colorful cast of characters (evolving nightly) gathers to grieve their crazy kinsman lovingly known by his surname, Flanagan. In better days, the lovable Flanagan was often passed out on a bar-room floor, and now he lays upon one in a pine box. The mourners include his long-suffering fiancée Fiona Finn (engaged for 22 years); Flanagan’s best mate and brother in booze, Brian Ballybunion; poet and barstool philosopher Mickey Finn; irreverent parish priest and gambling addict Father Damon Fitzgerald; pagan and local loon Kathleen; the sputteringly silent Mother Flanagan herself; and the honorable O’Doul, both bartender and mayor (a true Irish leader).
Audience members playing the “American cousins” come to pay their respects. The mourners converse with audience members as they settle at their tables, greeting them and giving out nametags: all the men are Your name here Patrick, and all the women are Mary your name here.
By virtue of some superbly talented improvisers, no two shows are the same. Each and every night, theatregoers decide how Flanagan dies, what his dreams were, what Irish renditions of pop songs are dedicated in his name; any and all rousing tall tales that can be dredged and developed from audience suggestions. It’s a high-falutin’ “choose your own adventure” play with music, devised and directed with aplomb by original director Jack Bronis, and original music director Bonnie Shadrake. With the founders of Flanagan’s Wake keeping all the side-splitting flavor that made the show a regional hit to begin with, the phenomenal performers are guided through original compositions of Gaelic grooves as templates for comedy, and steered through story beats to seek out true hilarity.
This reviewer’s grandma always said, “The Irish have storytelling in their blood.” This cast are either experts in long-form improv, or went to Galway for a blood transfusion. Luciana Bonifazi is fantastic as Fiona, clad in black veil and wailing on cue. She also concocts a hilarious song about Flanagan’s lost dreams with just a scene to silently devise it. Chase Wheaton-Werle earns every guffaw as Brian, a true teller of tall tales with a personable air and lovable, scheming ineptitude. Stephen Peebles is side-splitting as Father Fitzgerald, touting the unreleased “Book of Kevin” documenting Jay-sus’ teen years (yes, his brogue is in full comedic force). Susan Wingerter makes a kooky but clever Kathleen, setting up the longest pun with the biggest payoff this side of Kilarney. Alex DiVirgilio can come up with on-the-spot songs with the best of ‘em. Derek Brummet cracks up the audience without ever exiting Mother’s wheelchair or uttering a real word. And Greg Dodds is a genteel emcee of the Emerald Isle, if ever there was one.
Through all the twists and turns the funny Flanagan’s Wake takes, the farcical funeral is a function of familic, flippant fadoodle, and audiences will enjoy every moment of it.
Chicago Theater Works presents “Flanagan’s Wake” in a varied performance schedule open run at 1113 W. Belmont, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.