Tucked way up on the north side is a grungy little storefront theater. This theater usually houses the performances of the NeoFuturist theater company (the geniuses behind Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind). As a special holiday treat, though, Barrel of Monkeys has revived its hit That’s Weird, Grandma: Holiday Stories.
This company does something incredible: they go into Chicago public elementary schools and have the kids write for them. This, in itself, deserves the highest of high reviews and praise. There is something noble and beautiful about helping children. This company gives young children an artistic outlet by teaching creative writing classes in underprivileged areas. They then perform these stories for the students. This gives the students an opportunity to see their work come to life. This, to me, is the essence of art: providing a voice for the voiceless.
However, I have been charged with reviewing theater, not nonprofits. As far as a theater experience goes, I would call this show average. The student writers all deserve A’s for their stories. They provided the highlight of the evening: an insight into a child mind.
Children have a knack for writing innuendos that they, hopefully, are entirely unaware of. This is highlighted in the skit The Painless Drum. Here, one player interviews different players pretending to be musical instruments. The interviewer gets to the drum and the drum yells “I never wanted to be banged for the rest of my life.” I all but pissed myself at this point. I was crying tears of joy. This kid deserves an Oscar for his accidental comedic masterpiece.
Writing aside, the show felt sloppy and under-rehearsed. On multiple occasions, an actor would call from the side demanding more time to change costumes. The introductions to each skit were clearly improvised. This would be fine if the improv went smoothly. You could tell they were improvising, and in a theater that small, you could see the fear in each and every one of their eyes when they had to do so. I could tell that the performers were nervous about this.
I think the most disappointing part of the evening was that we were asked to laugh at the children, not with the children. The acting by some of the players bordered on cheap caricatures. Some of the actors seemed almost embarrassed to commit to the goofy stories and characters the children had created for them. This, of course, is not true of all the actors. Mari Marroquin, Barry Irving, Deanna Myers, and Rawson Vint gave consistently great performances. I was literally giddy with joy each time one of them step on stage for a skit. However, the lack of commitment from some of the cast made it feel as if I was just there to tell a five-year-old how “cute” his “little story” was. I think that goes against the point if the evening, letting children create art and see it celebrated.
Of course, there were some standout points of the evening. The Day I Got My Dog was performed entirely in Spanish. The coolest part of this is the skit’s representation of the nearly 50 percent of students that this company works with whose primary language is Spanish. Mari Marroquin as a little girl and Ashley Bland as her new puppy’s gifts of comedic timing made this skit uproariously funny despite my complete inability to speak Spanish (I’ve taken six years of German. Don’t ask why).
My personal favorite skit was a song entitled “Tilly, Thunder, and Bob.” Here, Thunder, a dragon (Barry Irving) and his donut wife, Tilly (Mari Marroquin) fight with an evil dragon, Bob (Caleb Probst). It was perfectly silly and childish. The little boy sitting behind me was laughing with delight the entire time. The childish part of me also laughed with glee.
This show is a mixed bag. Scenes, as well as performances, are hit or miss. But the company is truly doing great work to help children in need. It’s an inexpensive hour of entertainment. If it weren’t for the kids, I’d probably tell you to skip it, or at least go in with low expectations. But really the company is for children, so don’t skip it. In fact, bring your kids with. Give them an evening of fun at the theater. You’ll get a couple of laughs out of it too. Just remember whose work is really the most outstanding: the children who get to feel special for this night.
Bradley Laas, Critic-at-large
That’s Weird Grandma is now playing at Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland Ave, until December 23. Tickets start at $3o and are available from Barrel of Monkeys. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.