Innovative art springs from the minds of babes
Barrel of Monkeys presents:
That’s Weird, Grandma
review by Keith Ecker
Chicago is not lacking in the comedy department. I’ve met accountants who do improv comedy by night and schoolteachers who do stand-up. There are no less than three prominent comedy institutions in the city—Second City, iO and the Annoyance Theatre—not to mention the smaller contenders, including The Playground Theater, the Cornservatory, Chemically Imbalanced Comedy, pH Productions and ComedySportz.
Perhaps this saturation is to compensate for the depressing and long Chicago winters we have to suffer through. Regardless, saturation is the key term. How much comedy can one sit through before you feel like you’ve heard the same joke a hundred times over? Who do we turn to for comedy that pushes the boundaries while delivering fresh material?
The answer is the children.
Theatre company Barrel of Monkeys has tapped into the genius that is Chicago’s public school students and mined the young minds for comedic gems. And what they deliver is absolutely fascinating, often surreal and at times extraordinarily touching.
The show That’s Weird Grandma, which plays weekly at the Neo-Futurists space in Andersonville, is a fast-paced variety show of child-written stories adapted to the stage by the talented theatre group. Each week, the cast slots out one to three sketches, resulting in a completely new show every few weeks.
That’s Weird Grandma is only a small component of the Barrel of Monkeys franchise, which consists of an ambitious educational outreach program that teaches kids about creative writing. Since the program began, the group has worked in 32 Chicago Public Schools, and more than 7,000 students have participated in its workshops. There is also an after-school program in Loyola Park Field House in Rogers Park.
The show I saw consisted of 16 sketches, each lasting no more than several minutes. Sketches were presented in rapid-fire succession, and each was given an introduction that included the name and school of the student who had written the piece. Most of the pieces were completely fictitious though a couple were reflections of real life, including the hilarious scene “My Dad at Panda Express,” which features an angry father chewing out a young and confused Panda Express employee for neglecting to save any orange chicken for him.
Music accompanies every scene, and many sketches are musical in nature. For example, “Kool-Yummm” is a lyrical ode to Kool-Aid and features a hip-hop jam from the big red pitcher himself, the Kool-Aid Man.
As mentioned, the comedy captures the surreal minds of children in a way that celebrates their imaginations. You’re not laughing at them; you’re laughing with them. For instance, “W-I-A-R-D” is a bewildering scene about three girls, one of which is named Monkey, who find a note on the ground. What does the note say? “It say Jogococo.” Is this explained? No. Does it need an explanation? No. This is an unfiltered reflection of the hyperactive imaginations that rises out of the minds of babes, and that is satisfying enough.
The show wouldn’t be as amazing if it wasn’t for the talented cast, many of whom received training at the aforementioned comedy powerhouses. Their energy is big,; their commitment is strong; and their singing abilities are solid. Two of the cast members even swapped out seats at the piano to provide the accompaniment.
That’s Weird, Grandma is appropriate for all ages and has mass appeal. Scripts are tweaked so that some subtle jokes for the adults are thrown in, but the material in general is the stuff that everyone can relate to, from sisters ruining lives to parents ignoring children.
If you’re looking for something beyond Second City’s political humor, iO’s long-form improv and the Annoyance’s in-your-face comedy, That’s Weird, Grandma fills a Dadaist niche all its own that is much more than child’s play.
Performance Dates, Times and Location
"That’s Weird, Grandma" is currently running Sunday afternoons at 2 PM. Our Sunday matinee shows continue through April 4, and our 8 PM Monday night shows return on March 15.
The show runs a little over an hour.
"That’s Weird, Grandma" is presented at the Neo Futurists Theatre, located at 5153 N. Ashland Ave., on the corner of Ashland and Foster in Chicago.