A Mosaic of Creativity
From the moment you take your seat in the Neo-Futurarium and notice the curtain hanging in front of the upstage wall, you can tell you’re in for something special. A colorful patchwork of panels showcases scenes and dialogue from dozens of different shows, some confusing, some hilarious, some bizarre.
If your father’s mother or mother’s mother is there with you, you might just turn to her and say… “That’s weird, Grandma!”
“Written by Kids, Performed by Grownups, Enjoyed by Humans”
If the show itself weren’t so dang magnificent, the story of how it came into being might be the most fascinating thing about it. For nearly two decades, Barrel of Monkeys has been going into underserved Chicago Public Schools and holding creative writing workshops with 3rd to 5th grade students. They then adapt students’ stories, poems, and plays for the stage, incorporating props and costumes, music and dance.
The result is a show that speaks to audiences of all ages and dispositions. (Unless you hate joy—good conscience precludes recommending this to anyone who hates joy.) While the final product is perhaps a bit more polished than the 8- to 11-year-old writing it’s developed from, the heart remains pure childhood imagination.
At the opening of this particular revue, I Still Know What You Did Last Spring, it contained fifteen short plays. These included multiple musicals, several movement pieces, two episodes of a telenovela, and the first installment of a timely exposé on the twisted experiments of evil scientist James Harper. With so many different stories everyone is bound to have favorites, but there is not a dud in the bunch. These kids have moxie. These kids have chops. These facilitator-adapter-actors bring their A game—and their game is top notch.
Barrel of Monkeys Traverses Language, Species, Boundaries
The ensemble’s dedication to the playwrights’ creative spirit could rightly be described as admirable or idealistic. More than any lofty mission, though, it is just real. The sincerity and passion on display here are nothing short of intoxicating.
One good example can be found in the plays Untitled (Animales en Amor Peligroso), Los Caballos en Mexico, and Untitled (Animales en Amor Peligroso) Part 2. These tales of “Animals in Dangerous Love” and “Horses in Mexico” are among the funniest and most engaging in the production.
The adapters have neither simplified nor anglicized the students’ original language, and the work is all the stronger for it. Even to those in the audience with minimal Spanish vocabulary (this writer included), the plots and characters are not just accessible but delightful. The way the actors inhabit their roles (aided by simple yet spot-on pig, bear, horse, fish, and shark costumes) is a wonder to behold.
This same authenticity shines throughout the entire production. Whether as a girl sad that her best friend has been hiding a secret double life in Lady Spy, a pie being forced to eat another pie (“No! Now I will become a cannibal!”) in Life as a Pie, or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in The Man Who Save the Girl’s Cat [sic], the ensemble truly brings you into the story. More than that: they bring you into a kid’s mind.
More Fun Than a...
If one had to pick a single word to describe Barrel of Monkeys’ latest revue, it would be FUN. It’s a safe bet that you will laugh out loud, and don’t be surprised if you find yourself exchanging glances with your neighbor with expressions of ‘Is this really happening?’ and ‘Holy cow! Did you see that?’
There are sad parts, to be sure. (Hapless newlyweds Alicia and Steve make the Book of Job look like a picnic in The Honeymoon Was Ruined.) There are thrilling parts. (Tim’s mom’s friend’s two-year-old Charlette’s sinister machinations will keep you on the edge of your seat in The Story.) But most of all, this is pure, joyful entertainment.
Except for: People who hate joy
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Now through May 22
Mondays @ 8:00PM
The Neo-Futurist Theater
5153 N Ashland Ave, 2nd Floor
Chicago, IL 60640
Children 12 and under: $6.00
Online at www.barrelofmonkeys.org or at the door
As That's Weird, Grandma uses a rotating menu of plays, the particular slate of shows performed on a given evening will vary slightly from week to week.
Photos: Evan Hanover
About the Author:
Harold Jaffe is a poet, playwright, amateur trapeze artist, freelance greeting card designer, and now, unexpectedly, a theater critic. He earned a BS in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Olin College and since returning to Chicago has worked extensively with Cave Painting Theater Company and the late great Oracle Productions. His chapbook Perpetual Emotion Machine is now available at Women & Children First, and his reviews of shows around town are available right here.