Category: iO Theater
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.
Late-night musical re-enacts iconic Hughes film
iO Theater, Wrigleyville, presents
Breakfast Club: the Totally ’80s Musical
Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes
Driving down to see iO Theater’s late-night Breakfast Club: the Totally ’80s Musical, I tried to recall the salient features of that distant decade. Other than my own wedding and all the social, political and international goings-on summed up in the name Ronald Reagan, I couldn’t think of much. It was a fairly colorless era.
However, this show isn’t a paean to the totality of the 1980s, but only a tiny portion of it: John Hughes’ 1985 teen-angst cult film "The Breakfast Club." Set in Shermer High School, a fictional version of Hughes’ Northbrook alma mater, Glenbrook North, the show mixes dialog from the movie with nearly a dozen 1970s and ’80s songs performed by the cast in choreographed routines.
The film’s success lies in its combining the archetypes of high school: The Brain. The Jock. The Princess. The Basketcase. The Rebel. Whether you wore your hair shoulder length or in a mullet, dressed in tie-dye or bubble skirts, you knew them. This homage brings them back to life.
With Mark Lowe as Mr. Vernon; Tim Dunn as Brian Johnson, the Brain; Brian Finlay as Andy Clark, the Jock; Jessica Joy as Claire Standish, the Princess; Mary Cait Walthall as Allison Reynolds, the Basketcase; and Jeremiah Howe as John Bender, the Rebel; the cast re-enacts the Saturday when the five teens were unexpectedly stuck together for a day-long detention, punctuated by song and dance numbers set to the likes of Billy Idol’s "Rebel Yell" and Michael Jackson’s "Beat It."
Although this kind of like a live-action version of a video on YouTube (where you can see a dozen such re-enactments created by actual high-school students, mixed in with homemade music videos featuring "The Breakfast Club" movie clips), the iO cast has undeniable talent. In some cases, I thought their characterizations were better than the originals — and good voices. Musical Director Seth Tucker and Michele Tucker ably accompany on guitar, drums and keyboards.
Erica Reid and Jeff Gandy‘s jerky, self-conscious choreography imparts a good deal of the humor, coupled with the actors’ largely deadpan re-creations of the characters.
Productions like this one are a reason I have trouble with rating systems. Lightweight and silly as it is, "Breakfast Club" is a sweet show, and if I were to rate it strictly on its own terms — just on what it’s trying to be — I’d give it four stars. But when I look at what four-star plays like "Awake and Sing" or "Out of Order" have invested in sets and costumes and playwrights, or the polish that troupes such as The Second City give to their carefully scripted works, it seems excessive to give the same rating to a quirky, bare-bones, late-night re-staging of a movie. So, while I hate to encourage all of those folks who don’t bother to read the reviews but just look at stars, I’m going to come down some for context’s sake.
However, if you remember the 1980s, or at least "The Breakfast Club," this musical might be just your thing.
Notes: Performances are at 10:30 p.m. Thursdays only. The second-floor theater has no wheelchair access. Paid parking is available in nearby lots.
This morning on NBC5-Chicago, Nick Hausman of iO Theater and ComedySportz shows us the Hitchcock-method of making fake blood. (Believe me, there’s nothing more amateurish than a theatre production that uses blood that is bright red)
Being that this concoction is mostly chocolate syrup, I love the idea of making “blood sundaes” using the recipe. I bet my nieces and nephews would love it!
By the way, this type of thing is a great way for theater companies to get free press. I’m not sure if NBC5 sought out Nick or vice versa, but I’m sure that – after seeing this spot on TV – many viewers checked out the theater companies on the web.