A joyous, innovative hour of pure holiday entertainment
|Barrel of Monkeys presents|
|That’s Weird Grandma:
The Holiday Special Returns
Review by Lauren Whalen
In the last days before a new administration transforms Washington, educating the next generation is more important than ever. Kids need everything: math, science, literature and the arts – the latter of which often falls by the wayside in a “teach to the test” era. For 20 years, Barrel of Monkeys has taken arts education into its own scrappy, unique hands: conducting creative writing workshops with students in Chicago Public Schools, then turning their stories and words into professional theater for both educational institutions and the general public. According to press materials, Barrel of Monkeys annually performs over 300 student-written stories for students in their schools, and 175 stories on stage for the public. The Neo-Futurist Theater, with its bright paintings of ex-Presidents, gender-neutral bathrooms, and black box space that emanates adventure, is the ideal venue for Barrel of Monkeys’ exuberant revue, That’s Weird, Grandma. Their December iteration, That’s Weird, Grandma: The Holiday Special Returns is both a joyous hour and a reminder of the vitality of arts education.
That’s Weird, Grandma is a new show every week. After the show, audience members are invited to vote for their two favorite performed stories, as well as the two stories they could live without seeing. The stories are also printed in the program for audience members to read later, with the student author’s first name and school. They’re genuinely adorable and un-ironic, peppered with less-than-perfect grammar and bursting with heart. The holiday edition of That’s Weird, Grandma features both mainstays (a winter story involving marshmallows, reindeer and Diet Coke) and new favorites (a Hanukkah 101 lesson set to music). Barrel of Monkeys actors, who also facilitate the creative writing workshops, bring an impressive skillset to each story through physicality, dance, vocals, improv and instrumental music. Their stage consists of a homemade curtain, their costumes are an array of wigs, tutus and headbands with animal ears. They are a true ensemble, laughing and playing together with infectious joy, but never forgetting the sources of their stories: kids who might not otherwise experience creative arts in school – or anywhere.
Some of my favorite stories include “Tanya and Jorden” (featuring the very independent daughter of Cinderella, who does not enjoy cleaning or princes); “Santa’s Mean Day” (because even St. Nicholas himself doesn’t always feel one hundred percent happy); and the aforementioned Hanukkah song, “Dear Hidolya.” Each story is only a few minutes long, but all serve as a poignant reminder of the rich inner lives of children. Whether they’re imagining the double life of a schoolgirl turned spy or fantasizing about government disputes settled by dance battles – which I think is an excellent idea – kids are funny, interesting and since hundreds of years ago when they were ideally seen and not heard, often overlooked. That’s Weird, Grandma: The Holiday Special Returns is a testament to the power of creativity in children and adults, a celebration of live theater and storytelling, and a call to action to keep these programs alive in the schools that need them most.
That’s Weird Grandma: The Holiday Special Returns continues through January 2nd at the Neo-Futurist Theater, , 5153 N. Ashland (map), with performances Sundays 2pm and Mondays 8pm. Tickets are $12 (children under 12: $6), and are available by phone (866-811-4111) or online at OvationTix.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More info at BarrelofMonkeys.org. (Running time: 60 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Evan Hanover
behind the scenes