Playwright: various authors. At: Barrel of Monkeys at the Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland Ave. Phone: 312-409-1954;$10. Runs through: open run
Entertainment proclaiming itself "Children's Theater" can take many forms, ranging from plays written and performed by adults for an idealized "youth market," to plays written by adults for performance by children for "family" audiences (i.e., those of the participants). Barrel of Monkeys, however, rejects the nostalgia-fogged epics beloved of parents and grant committees to instead pursue original stories composed by third- through fifth-graders in Chicago Public Schools and geared toward the sensibilities of their peers, which then inspire the scripts in this comedy revue. After all, who knows better what youngsters like than the youngsters themselves?
The differences reveal themselves immediately: What "juvenile fiction" author would dare cast as his or her protagonist a Serial Killer Squirrel? ("I'm gonna getcha!" his theme song warns.) Or propose a hospital exclusively for ninjas, where even the doctors warm up with a few katas before attending to patients? What about a sugary kiddie show focused on pet-feeding habits whose host is put to rout by a pair of piranhas? More teen-friendly premises include a vegetarian vampire, a corporate executive with a fondness for nacho chips, and an innocent citizen harassed by a squad of sinister Ducks-In-Black.
Responsible mentors may protest the absence of educational content in "Vampire, Alien, Superbaby and Bowser" (featuring a quartet of characters named...you get the idea), but many of the scenarios embrace a surprisingly explicit moral lesson. Bullies get their comeuppance in "Stupid." A blissfully spaced-out girl suffers a sorry fate in "Daisy Never Learned," while Avondale 5th-grader José J. argues for and against the automated nannies in "Babysitter Robots." Even the sexuality is kept age-appropriate, as in a Dolly Parton-ish ballad of a couple whose romance is rekindled by a Vegas vacation ("They rode the boat and made out the whole time.")
The Neo-Futurarium's maze-like corridors and playroom-decor lobby (where ensemble members cheerfully mingle with young playgoers) generate anticipatory energy well before the doors open for the hour-long sprint through 16 skits. That's Weird, Grandma has been running year-round for more than a decade, its slate changing over time, but the current show is gleefully directed by Monkey emeritus Molly Brennan of 500 Clown, putting an extra-impish edge on the hi-jinks. Bring your niece or nephew, borrow the neighbors' kids or go by yourselfgrown-ups are welcome, too.