Nothing Is More Fun Than a Barrel of Monkeys
Barrel of Monkeys puts on an astoundingly unique show every Monday at 8 at the Neofuturarium. “That’s Weird, Grandma”--a wonderfully experimental, yet G-rated, experience!
By Alan Jacobson

Barrel of Monkeys began performing five years ago as Griffin’s Tale, a troupe of Northwestern students adapting North Shore elementary students’ stories. Over the years, this ensemble of actors and creative writing educators have refined their craft and extended their scope, partnering with Chicago Communities in Schools to bring Barrel of Monkeys to area students. At each performance, the troupe continues to present opportunities to donate to their cause.

Said cause is an itinerant 6-week creative writing workshop the Monkeys bring to local grade schools. The idea is to build self-esteem through the special brand of empowerment that only creative expression can bring. Utter freedom through creative thinking is the objective. The marvelous upshot is the show Barrel of Monkeys presents every Monday at the Neofuturarium.

The humor bubbles from such a superb source that there is no way this could not work. The mechanics are fascinating. Get a group of expressive 8-11 year olds to submit creative writing samples. Appropriate this raucous innocence, and share it with the world with as much of its youthful joi-de-vivre and wide-eyed, privileged naïveté intact as possible.

The ensemble’s fusion of these students’ stories (all included as originally written in the program) with a theater setting is a dazzling synthesis. That the actors are creative writing teachers with a direct link to these children ensures that there is nothing patronizing in the interpretation. In fact, they all seem to actively aspire to these gifted youngsters’ creativity and innocence. To wit: Barrel of Monkeys “strives to build a community that champions the vision of every child as a way to develop young people who believe in themselves.”

I will shed light on but a small portion of the roughly two dozen rotating sketches, ranging in subject from a bully ant to a talking hat trying to learn French to people who deserve (and need) surprising riches, to avoid spoiling the program for anyone.

But let’s start with a visit to the theater itself. Nestled on the corner of Foster and Ashland, the Neofuturarium is a remarkable place to see a play. Those of you fortunate enough to catch the other shows there (“The 60 Minute History of Humankind” is brilliant) know this. Pretension is ditched in favor of propinquity.

The entire front stage experience looks and feels like a backstage. Lovingly worn-down woodwork embellishes rooms of varying sizes (and uses) with an atmosphere of theatrical immediacy. Elegance in DIY show business, there are just enough flyers, pictures, and bizarre theater ephemera to keep the patron occupied until led into the anteroom. I won’t spoil what happens there except to say that a “wizened bellboy” leads everyone to the intimate stage area.

Once inside, an educational filmstrip is channeled through a gigantic, scary little girl. We’re talking Grand Guignol grotesque, here--though minus the morality via flying blood and parts, of course.

No, it’s actually really charming, as is the rest of the show. The Monkeys genuinely evoke, nay channel, the spirits of these wildly creative kids with appreciation, love, and respect for the subject matter. The sketches reflect a range of the great issues: love, hate, fear, and above all, the need for security, individuality, and community in an insane world.

“Super Cat, Super Dog, Super Mouse” follows the adventures of these competitive animals. Logically, the cat and dog meet up and talk. As natural enemies, it would also follow that a challenge would be in order. Classically, a heavy rock must be lifted. Neither can manage it. Sophisticated, yet so obvious only a kid would dream it up, a mouse ironically emerges with the full weight of the stone on his shoulders. Contests follow to finally illustrate that each animal has its own unique strengths. The ideal of a community full of healthily contributive individuals becomes reality as they join forces at the end.

This skit is performed alarmingly low-keyed. In fact, halfway through the show, one must remind oneself: “this is experimental? Theater?” The absence of virtually any trace of self-consciously theatery aspects lends even fuller focus to the joy these kids infused these impressive vignettes with.

The innocent logic and provocatively creative presentation does not falter for a second during the cramped hour of “That’s Weird, Grandma.” In one sketch, the piano player is shot, merely, it seems, as an attempt to get on the same creative heights as the writers of the source material; there is a German-esque electro tune about a dead dog, replete with chants, moogy effects, false endings, and that de-riguer deadpan of the genre; and the very last sketch is a gospel-tinged musical number about a car crash between a scientist and a talking potato chip who end up “Stuck in the Hospital.”

The fun at the end of the barrel arrives without warning, after sixty minutes of a virtually sardonic grin on the audience’s faces. Another live-action filmstrip announces the actual ending, further sophistication framing “That’s Weird Grandma.” But there’s good news.

In keeping with the logic of childhood, everything is fresh and surprising. After each performance, the patrons cast ballots on what they found to be the two strongest and weakest sketches. Every week, two new vignettes are added while an equal number are chucked. A weekly visit yields old favorites and surprises in keeping with that childish adage/ideal pertaining to silver and gold.

The sum of joy is ineffable. At the end of the performance I attended, all were speechless but for the odd comment, “that may have been the single greatest thing ever.” And you know what? At least a half dozen people were in earshot and all of them vocally agreed, with chuckles both appreciative and residual from this exhilaratingly unique theater experience.

Get in touch with your inner monkey every Monday at 8 and check out: http://www.barrelofmonkeys.org/

Go home!