Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: That’s Weird Grandma/Barrel of Monkeys

Comedy, Improv/Sketch Reviews, Improv/Sketch/Revues, Recommended Comedy Shows No Comments »
Photo: Michelle Alba

Photo: Michelle Alba


Children of all ages braved a rainstorm Monday night to hear songs about jelly, see a video game where a taco takes on a squash and visit a world where a person lives in a sewer with a monkey as a butler. Who else could come up with this stuff but kids? Now in its seventeenth season, Barrel of Monkeys hilariously bring the stories of third, fourth and fifth graders from Chicago Public Schools to life in “That’s Weird, Grandma” at the Neo-Futurist Theater.

Since 1997, Barrel of Monkeys has lived out their slogan, “Kids write it. We do it. World Saved!” by working with kids in fifty-seven Chicago Public Schools to create and perform more than 300 student-written stories annually. “That’s Weird, Grandma” is a revue that features some of the funniest, weirdest and most creative writing youngsters are able to craft and share.

Barrel of Monkeys’ artistic director, Molly Brennan, cleverly directs an outstanding ensemble cast that features company members Kassi Bleifuss, Lizzie Bracken, Linsey Falls, Maggie Fullilove-Nugent, Emjoy Gavino, Nick Hart, Tai Palmgren, Tim Soszko, Curtis Williams, Donnell Williams and Rachel Wilson. The set is minimal, but quite a few colorful costumes and props help keep kids’ attention focused on the stage. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Apes of Wrath/Second City e.t.c.

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(l-r) Punam Patel, Carisa Barreca, Brooke Breit, Tim Ryder, Asher Perlman and Eddie Mujica/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Punam Patel, Carisa Barreca, Brooke Breit, Tim Ryder, Asher Perlman and
Eddie Mujica/Photo: Todd Rosenberg


“That’s cool as hell!” declares an enthralled pre-recorded voice, breaking away from his own faux deep thoughts about the universe, as the six-person cast of “Apes of Wrath”—the latest revue to hit the Second City e.t.c. stage—holds multicolored balls of light in front of themselves on a darkened stage. This is a near-perfect introduction to the introspective-yet-easily-distractible theme that runs through this production and, if we’re being honest, through most of our internet-connected brains: on one hand we want to be thoughtful and reflective, but on the other… ALL THE THINGS! ALL THE TIME!

Sure there have always been distractions, but it seems that in the last decade, the distractions have just been getting exponentially more impressive, more easily accessible and more instantly forgettable by the day. Notably, the first sketch of the night features a group of writers at BuzzFeed (now that “newspapers are no longer a thing”) teaching a new trainee the ropes of creating engaging content. BuzzFeed’s an easy target for confronting our microsecond attention-spans, but the cast (who are also the writers of the show) nail it without being blatant. And that’s what makes the majority of this two-act show work so well: even when addressing familiar topics, they find a new way in. Read the rest of this entry »

Big Laughs: The Chicago Women’s Funny Festival Returns with Seventy Shows

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Liz MacArthur and Jill Valentine

Liz McArthur and Jill Valentine

Comedy has come a long way. In the old days, many male comedians believed with all of their hearts that women just weren’t funny. The comedy world was once filled with barriers for female comedians. Times have changed and while many of those barriers still exist, many women have taken their rightful place in every echelon of the comedic world. To celebrate this welcome change, the Chicago Women’s Funny Festival (CWFF) was created.

Festival founders Jill Valentine and Liz McArthur—both veterans of the Chicago comedy community who worked on the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, another of Chicago’s big comedy extravaganzas—saw an opportunity to create a festival that focused on women. By applying their experience and expertise, they created the CWFF in 2012.

Now for the third year in a row, the CWFF takes to the stage to celebrate women in comedy. Unlike many other comedy festivals that focus on a specific genre of comedy such as sketch or improv, the Chicago Women’s Funny Festival features every type of comedy, from stand-up to burlesque to musical comedy; if it’s funny, it has a place at CWFF. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Table Manners/The Public House Theatre

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(l to r) Kaitlin Larson, Ellen Mcmahon, Eliana Stone, Jenelle Cheyne, Grace Palmer, Amy Rose Ramelli, Karly Bergmann/Photo: Cassie Ahiers

(l to r) Kaitlin Larson, Ellen McMahon, Elianna Stone, Jenelle Cheyne, Grace Palmer, Amy Rose Ramelli, Karly Bergmann/Photo: Cassie Ahiers

Everyone’s got to eat, right? But not everyone has a healthy relationship with food. In fact, it’s estimated that over twenty million Americans are affected by an eating disorder. Women tend to be particularly impacted. While illnesses associated with eating disorders are no laughing matter, the women of “Table Manners” at The Public House Theatre certainly strive, and often achieve, a chuckle when they share their stories and struggles of “female mastication.”

After a champagne toast to their “food baby,” the ensemble of Karly Bergmann, Jenelle Cheyne, Kaitlin Larson, Ellen McMahon, Grace Palmer, Amy Rose Ramelli and Elianna Stone perform a series of skits, monologues and comedic songs to illustrate just how complex their connection to various cuisines really is. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Brahman/i: A One-Hijra Stand-Up Comedy Show/About Face Theatre and Silk Road Rising

Recommended Shows, Stand-Up, Theater, Theater Reviews 1 Comment »
Fawzia Mirza and Damian Conrad/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Fawzia Mirza and Damian Conrad/Photo: Michael Brosilow


This gal’s got some real balls. Is that too blue for you? Sorry, I just couldn’t resist such a nice opening. Oh, she’s got one of those too.

Lest you think I’m being too irreverent, be advised that the protagonist of “Brahman/i: A One-Hijra Stand-Up Comedy Show” is frequently in your face about the uncommonly dual genitalia s/he possesses. Portrayed by actress Fawzia Mirza in a commanding and at times fierce near-solo turn in About Face Theatre/Silk Road Rising’s downtown production, the titular character delights—like any good comedian—in confronting the audience. If you’re squeamish about anatomy or gender designations, be forewarned. And if you’re British, be prepared to bear the brunt of an increasingly fiery assault on your imperial history that surpasses even the abuse heaped upon Brahman/i’s sidekick, a hapless but sympathetic (and sympathizing) bass player who commits no less a sin than daring to sit, uncommitted, partly in the dark and partly in the spotlight reserved for the star.

It’s Brahman/i who really straddles the line between dark and light, and so many other borders as well—at times making a case for understanding and tolerance, and at other times venting with a self-assured righteousness befitting one named after supreme, infinite reality. Also like the Hindu concept of Brahman, our hero in this play escapes gender classification. S/he flirts with such designation—and with some of the audience as well—but don’t expect any easy answers. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Depraved New World/Second City

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John Hartman, Chelsea Devantez, Emily Walker, Tawny Newsome, Steve Waltien/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

John Hartman, Chelsea Devantez, Emily Walker, Tawny Newsome, Steve Waltien/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Though you can almost always count on Second City revues to deliver plenty of laughs, thematic consistency isn’t quite as reliable. “Depraved New World”—the 102nd revue to grace the main stage—manages both without short-changing either. And that consistent theme isn’t depravity—though there’s enough of that sprinkled throughout to justify the title. It’s a bit deeper than that. Under the direction of Mick Napier, the cast members of “Depraved New World” (who are also the writers) explore the internal struggle we all go through regarding our own insecurities, shortcomings and frustrations.

This concept is introduced in a song that finds various characters being confronted by their inner voices berating them for telling a stupid joke or asking a stupid question or just not making good enough brownies: in short, for being human. “Does everyone feel this way?” wonders one character after receiving an upbraiding by a nagging inner voice. And the unspoken answer is, “Of course.” Not feeling up to snuff is a universal theme that is instantly relatable to all. It also provides plenty of fodder for laughs. Read the rest of this entry »

Geeking Out: Chicago Nerd Comedy Festival Enters its Second Year

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Plan 9 Burlesque

Plan 9 Burlesque

By Raymond Rehayem

Back in the cathode ray days of my pre-HD childhood, when my father bemoaned my obscure taste in comic books (“What are the X-Men? Why can’t you like something popular like Spider-Man, so I can buy you something?!?”) it wasn’t just uncool to have geeky tastes, it was downright inconvenient. Miss an issue of mutant boarding school mayhem and you had better pedal your ten-speed to your only local comic shop (if you were in so fortunate a locale) and pray on the way that there will be a bagged back issue to fill the gaps in your knowledge of Homo Superior developments.

It’s a vastly altered reality in which the Chicago Nerd Comedy Festival (aka Nerdfest) gears up for its second annual undertaking this month at Stage 773. I credit the MP3 for making handheld gadgetry irresistible and CGI for making big screen superheroes passable. Regardless, nowadays there’s nothing mysterious about an old Green Lantern t-shirt. It’s quite the opposite.

“Nerd is kinda norm now,” opines Nerdfest co-creator Katie Johnston-Smith. A self-identified nerd who temporarily abandoned the fold due to middle school mockery, she confesses to a concern that returning to nerd-dom around the time it rose in stature may make her “a poseur.” But Johnston-Smith’s enthusiasm for geek culture proves the authenticity of her allegiance. Following last year’s inaugural success, the festival’s committee came up with a free monthly night of fan fiction readings to sustain and build interest leading up to this year’s Nerdfest. Johnston-Smith and co-founder Fin Coe curate and host “Hey, I’m A Big Fan: A Night Of Fan Fiction Readings” every third Wednesday at Stage 773, for which participants specifically write new material. Much, though not all, of the fan fiction is erotic in nature. Despite seemingly intense prospects like “a very graphic sexual version” of the sitcom “Full House,” Johnston-Smith describes the ongoing monthly series as “low stakes and chill.” A selection of the best “Hey, I’m A Big Fan” readings—as chosen by the festival committee and the fanbase—opens the festival on Wednesday. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Planetary Defense Force in: Crisis on Planet Earth/The Public House Theatre

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TPDF Press Pic“The Planetary Defense Force in: Crisis on Planet Earth!” provides the slimmest of sci-fi narrative trappings within which to showcase an evening of the casually costumed cast challenging select audience members. The challenge is a modified version of dodgeball. Rounds of this tournament are presented as a series of missions the Defense Force mounts against an evil cadre of interstellar schemers. Among the schemers: an affected and comically caped Brit and the timeless scourge known throughout the galaxy as an attorney. The Planetary Defense Force team members play on the side of the audience participants, and rules change as the matches roll on. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Period Piece/The Playground Theater

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IMG_1_Press OptionFive or ten minutes into “Period Piece,” I had nearly resigned myself to a show with little but its heart in the right place. Then, quite noticeably and suddenly, everything else clicked into place and I was off on a spirited, intelligent and emotionally true journey through time on a rather red river of hilarity.

Our hero Tammy DuPont has placed about as many pharmacological, intellectual and emotional dams between her and her monthly magic as playwrights Jenni Lamb and Lisa Linke have placed slang menstruation terms into this frequently uproarious script. A disastrous pitch to her longtime client from Forever Feminine hygiene products, the resultant falling out with her business partner and a surprise visit from her Aunt Flo (oh, that bothersome flow) conspire to force high-powered ad-exec Tammy to rethink her bitter, dismissive attitude about her period. The catalyst for this change of heart is a family heirloom gifted by Aunt Flo: a magical sanitary napkin belt which thrusts Tammy back and forth through time. On several stops through both world and DuPont family history (which generally intersect) Tammy confronts ridiculous, debunked “expertise” on women’s health, sexist doctrine on a woman’s place and her own unresolved feelings of personal loss and shame which are increasingly revealed to be the source of her views on menstruation. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Cupid Has a Heart On: A Musical Guide to Relationships/The Cupid Players at Stage 773

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High-Res CUPID Photo“You don’t have to be smart to laugh at farts,” Louis C.K. sagely explained in one of his many oft-quoted interviews, “But you have to be stupid not to.” The ensemble of “Cupid Has a Heart On”—which has been consistently running for more than a decade (making it the longest-running sketch comedy show in Chicago history)—would certainly agree. But while most of the humor in here is decidedly lowbrow (one memorable punchline is literally “poop poop poop poop”), it’s also consistently laugh-out-loud funny. If you measure the success of a comedy show by setting up some kind of hits-to-misses ratio, rest assured that “Cupid’s” arrows solidly hit their marks much more often than not. Read the rest of this entry »