Chicago Theater Review: CHICAGO’S WEIRD, GRANDMA (The Neo-Futurarium)

Post image for Chicago Theater Review: CHICAGO’S WEIRD, GRANDMA (The Neo-Futurarium)

by Samantha Nelson on October 30, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


Barrel of Monkeys has spent more than 10 years teaching writing workshops at Chicago schools, but they are best known for turning the creative writing from elementary school kids into songs, sketches, and dance numbers which are performed at their weekly show, That’s Weird, Grandma. Now they’re letting an impressive list of local theater companies join the fun, including Steppenwolf, Lookingglass and the Neo-Futurists, in the similarly structured Chicago’s Weird, Grandma. While the guest stars are sure to bring extra attention to Barrel of Monkey’s wonderful program, on the night I attended these visiting theater companies didn’t seem to compete with their hosts.

While almost all of the audience members at a Barrel of Monkeys show are adults, kids are welcome as the performance is always G-rated. It’s a refreshing change from traditional sketch comedy shows, proof you don’t need to talk about sex or use any dirty words to send a room full of grown-ups into hysterics.

Programs contain the same stories, with two stories changed up each week to keep the show perpetually fresh. Seeing the often-bare material shows the ensemble’s ability to find seeds of inspiration and give them the right framing to thrive. A short story from Batman’s perspective about how he shouldn’t have to save the world turns into a performance at an open mic for superheroes, complete with interjections from Alfred and other audience members that doubles as a beautiful parody of Chris Nolan’s films. “The ISAT Werewolf Day,” a story of a kid who turns into a werewolf when he gets nervous, develops into a sweet, if absurd, tale with a bit of criticism for standardized testing.

Samantha Nelson’s Stage and Cinema review of Barrel of Monkey’s Chicago’s Weird, Grandma at The Neo-Futurarium in ChicagoMusical director Ricky Harris’ songs are the strongest part of the show, letting the incredibly talented ensemble really show off. But there’s rarely a lull with artistic director Molly Brennan keeping things zipping along, making the cry of “The end!” at the finale of each sketch a necessary marker since the next one starts so fast.

Costumes are very simple, often looking like stuff that’s been lying around in a bargain bin for a while, including ratty wigs and bizarre hats. But it all works well given the boundless enthusiasm of the cast who can perform the role of a villain named Stinky Stone or a kid who joins the NFL and wins 58 Super Bowl rings and $5 trillion with beautiful sincerity.

Samantha Nelson’s Stage and Cinema review of Barrel of Monkey’s Chicago’s Weird, Grandma at The Neo-Futurarium in ChicagoSome of Barrel of Monkeys sketches fall flat, like one about two girls competing to be the ugliest in the world that really just amounted to a lot of talking in bad German accents. But it was the sketches from the guest adapters that were the weakest parts of the show: Wildclaw Theatre’s tale of a girl and her pet T-Rex fighting off a zombie army that showed up because she didn’t brush her teeth had a strong premise, but their performance was overly manic, complete with throwing candy out to the audience for no apparent reason and having the T-Rex suddenly talk at the end of the sketch (which was already plenty silly enough). Strawdog Theatre Company’s stint on stage was much worse, entirely missing the tone of the show: Where every other sketch oozed youthful exuberance, they went for a melodramatic tale of a concerned mother trying to urge caution on her adventurous daughter; sometimes a bit of drama can have a potent impact on an audience primed by laughter, but this just felt awkwardly tone deaf and I was much happier when Barrel of Monkeys got back on stage and showed that they’re the masters of their domain by starting the laughs up again.

photos by Maggie Fullilove-Nugent

Chicago’s Weird, Grandma
Barrel of Monkeys (with guest artists) at The Neo-Futurarium
scheduled to end on December 17, 2012
for tickets, visit

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit

Leave a Comment