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Flanagan’s Wake

 

At the Chicago Theater Works

By Dan Zeff

 

Chicago - “Flanagan’s Wake” is back on a Chicago stage, cheerfully reoccupying its place as one of the metropolitan area’s most agreeable guilty pleasures. The show is dedicated to the theatrical premise that everything an Irishman (or Irishwoman) says is funny, especially if the topic is drinking, the church, family bickering, or deaths and funerals and expressed in a thick Irish brogue.. “Flanagan’s Wake” isn’t Shakespearean tragedy, but then Shakespearean tragedy isn’t “Flanagan’s Wake.”

          “Flanagan’s Wake” originated in 1994 and has been around the Chicagoland area off and on ever since. I first saw it at the suburban Pheasant Run Theatre (now defunct) and thought it was a hoot. I caught the show again early last year at the Chicago Theater Works on the city’s near North Side and I still thought it was a hoot.

My feelings haven’t changed with the return of the show to the Chicago Theater Works for an open run, replacing “Gotta Bingo,” which, according to a press release, is “on a hiatus until 2018.” “Flanagan’s Wake” is now running in repertory with “Tony and Tina’s Wedding,” giving the theater a pair of ethnic comedies, “Tony and Tina’s Wedding” doing for Italian stereotypes what “Flanagan’s Wake” does for the Irish.

“Flanagan’s Wake” is presented as a community wake in the fictional town of Grapplin in County Sligo, Ireland. Assorted denizens of the community are gathered to mourn the death of Flanagan, who lies in repose within a closed wooden casket that is the centerpiece of the stage. The show mostly consists of testimonials and reminiscences by locals who knew the deceased, mingled with songs, a bit of dancing, much audience participation, and the continual hoisting of bottles of beer.    

The seven-member cast mingles with the audience (seated at tables) before the show starts, making sure every spectator has his or her Irish name inscribed on a nametag. Audience members are brought onto the stage to join in the festivities and the actors, who doubtless have heard it all from past performances, easily turned even the most tongue-tied patrons into efficient comic foils. Much of the show’s motor is driven by suggestions the performers solicit from the audience, like the manner of Flanagan’s death (at my performance he died when a mound of luggage collapsed and buried him at an airport as he was rushing to catch a plane to the United States). The cast runs with such audience contributions, frequently elevating the improvisation element of the evening to high grade Second City sketch material.

For some reason the production does not provide the audience with the names of the actors so I can’t salute them individually. My favorite character was Father Daman Fitzgerald, the town priest, partly because he had the saltiest and funniest material. His disquisition on the Book of Kevin, the previously unknown fifth Gospel, is a great comic monologue. Right with him in comic excellence is the town mayor and bartender, followed by Flanagan’s ostentatiously grieving fiancé, his drinking buddy, and three fellow mourners.

The show runs about 1 hour and 45 minutes, including a short intermission. Unlike last year’s production, this one does not serve food, but the bar is always open, as one might expect. Some viewers at my performance obviously got an early start on their drinking and were having a bellowing grand time by the end of the show, but that fit the bumptious spirit of the evening.

“Flanagan’s Wake,” like “Tony and Tina’s Wedding,” is a perfect date night for millennials and even for General X types who just want to kick back and have a good time. Political correctness is a non-starter for this show, but I suspect customers with Irish roots were laughing the loudest throughout the evening.

“Flanagan’s Wake” is playing an open run at the Chicago Theater Works, 1113 North Belmont Avenue. Tickets are $29 to $34. Performance times vary. For information, call 312 391 0404 or visit ChicagoTheaterWorks.com.

            The show gets a rating of three stars.

      Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com.

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       Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding

                         At Chicago Theater Works

                                          By Dan Zeff

Chicago—“Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding” ran from 1993 to 2009 at Pipers Alley in Chicago and it was a surprise that the show ever closed. Chicagolanders and tourists alike seemed to have an inexhaustible fascination for the raucous Italian nuptials between Anthony Nunzio and Tina Vitale. The original New York producers of the show obviously felt there was more box office gold to be mined from the wedding in Chicago and brought back the show after a seven year hiatus.

The first production was staged under a single roof. The marriage ceremony took place in one room and the wedding party and guests moved across the hall to a nightclub setting for the reception, including a buffet meal. The revival uses two locations. The evening begins with the wedding service at the Resurrection Church at 3309 North Seminary Avenue. The show then moves to Vinnie Black’s Coliseum (also known as the Chicago theater Works) at 1113 West Belmont Avenue, an easily walked block away.

“Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding” hasn’t any time for political correctness. The show leaves no Italian stereotype untouched. The characters sound and look like a casting call for a Martin Scorsese movie (the wedding is set during the 1980’s).

The Nunzio and Vitale families don’t like each other, and Tina’s mother Josephine is not one to hide her contempt for her in laws under a bushel. The atmosphere is loud, the humor elementary and sometimes ostentatiously coarse. The dancing at the reception is hyper active and on opening night the characters and members of the audience competed to see who could work up the greater sweat dancing to “YMCA” and other anthems of the eighties. As the reception passed into its later stages, emotions ratcheted up into mock violence (I couldn’t see clearly over the table in front of me but I think a Nunzio decked Josephine Vitale).

The meal is a basic pasta and sausage course with salad and French bread. It’s not cuisine dining but the audience should eat its fill, with refill portions of pasta available. The dinner ends with plates of wedding cake served at the table. The price of admission includes a the inevitable “champagne toast.” At my table for six, the champagne bottle was already two-thirds empty when we sat down, allowing each diner a decent sip, but there is a cash bar for those who require additional fortifying.

What makes the production work is the unbounded energy of the 23 performers at the reception. The church wedding itself was a pretty bland and perfunctory affair. But at Vinnie Black’s Coliseum the evening rocked hard. The pot was vigorously stirred by singer-master of ceremonies Donny Dolce, given a very credible rendering of the vulgar Las Vegas lounge singer by Micah Spayer.

Brian Noonan is not only the reception host as Vinnie Black but also tosses in a nicely abrasive impersonation of a second rate Rodney Dangerfield in a comedy routine. This being an Italian wedding, there has to be a significant Roman Catholic presence, represented by Billy Minshall as the mild mannered Father Mark and Alisha Fabbri, Tina’s sister and soon to take her vows as Sister Albert Maria.

Mitchell Conti really throws himself into the fray as an increasing wired Tony, and Hannah Aaron Brown does her part as the bride who is also a pretty good dancer. But virtually everyone in the cast helps to jack up the comic intensity and decibel count at the reception.

Paul Stroili, a cast member of the original Chicago production, is the director. He rightly judges that the production is not made for subtlety and nuance and turns his ensemble loose to generate the appropriate uproar. The brash performances look spontaneous, which is a credit to the direction.

Given the nature of the show, it’s difficult to assess acting skills, but the ensemble commitment to raising the roof has got to be admired. There were ethnic jokes aplenty to go with the Italian caricatures, but the show doesn’t have an offensive bone in its body, possible exceptions being some gross sexual gestures and a few words of profanity. But if “Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding” was a motion picture, it would get an innocuous PG-13 rating. The show is staged in an efficient 150 minutes, including the church ceremony, the walk to the reception, and the reception itself. Maybe the show won’t run 16 years but it will provide plenty of fun for visitors who want an evening short on decorum and long on in-your-face fun.

“Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding” is playing through December 31 at the Resurrection Church, 3309 North Seminary Avenue, and Chicago Theater Works, 1113 West Belmont Avenue. Performances are Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Times vary. Tickets are $75 and $85. For tickets and information, visit http://tonylovestina.com.

     The show gets a rating of 3 stars.     September 2016

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                 We Gotta Bingo

                          At Chicago Theater Works

                                         by Dan Zeff

Chicago – “We Gotta Bingo” is the kind of theatrical event that disarms criticism. If you liked this type of entertainment, you will have a ball. If you don’t, you have no business attending the show to begin with.

“We Gotta Bingo” is the opening production by Chicago Theater Works at a new venue on Belmont Avenue, further enhancing the three-block area along the street as a mini off Loop theater district. The show is interactive theater, a buzz term for a production that is loud, obvious, high energy, and loads of fun for those patrons disposed to this kind of frolicsome amusement.

The show originated in Minneapolis in 2004 and has had success in other midwestern venues. The producers are hoping for a long local run in the spirit of previous interactive shows like “Tony and Tina’s Wedding” and “Shear Madness,” The production is starting off with three weekend performances but the management presumably would be happy to expand the schedule if Chicagoans and visitors take to the event.

The plot of “We Gotta Bingo” portrays in a bingo game between two rival Chicago Catholic parishes, one Irish and one Italian. It seems that the two parishes have been marked for merger by the archbishop for economic reasons, to the unhappiness of each parish. The game is held in a German beer hall that seats about 200. There is a German master of ceremonies of sort and music is provided by a small Polish polka band, thus touching several of the major ethnic bases in Chicago’s demographic mix.

Photo Credit: Dan Rest

During the opening night’s overlong 2½-hour performance a handful of bingo games were actually played, with the winners receiving modest or gimmick prizes. The games cast the typical bingo spell, with the spectators intently marking their sheets and snarling in exasperation when some hateful person shouts out “Bingo” just as a cluster of other players were anxiously awaiting the call of the one number that would put them into the winner’s circle.

Most of the evening, however, is given over to ebullient comedy involving a large cast of 14 characters, led by a portly young man named Bucky who calls the numbers from the stage with all the subtlety of a howitzer barrage As an aside, I don’t recall a cast so many full figured characters. Whatever problems the members of the two parishes may face, anorexia isn’t one of them.

The comedy leans heavily toward the hyper obvious, including some gay humor that I thought had been abolished by the Political Correctness Police years ago. And there were double entendre quips by the bushel, several coming from a wide-eyed innocent nun named Sister Gigi who presumably doesn’t realize she is uttering salty remarks that could be taken in an R-rated sense. But the vulgarity is dispensed gleefully with no offense intended and n one taken. A spectator is entitled to groan at the jokes but also to laugh without apology.

The show’s motor never stops. The ongoing uproar suits the vehicle perfectly and the headlong commitment by the cast is infectious. The show is actually delivered with considerable professionalism. The ticket of admission includes a meal featuring a generous slice of really excellent lasagna, accompanied by salad and bruschetta, with brownies and lemon bars for desert. In the absence of waiters, the patrons have to belly up to the bar to get their drinks and the bar was humming all night, this being a type of activity that benefits from ongoing alcohol lubrication.

Photo Credit: Dan Rest

There is plenty of audience involvement, not only in the bingo but also in dancing with various characters. There is even a dance that weaves through the hall resembling a hora at a Jewish wedding, just to extend the evening’s ethnic boundaries even further. The performers lead the audience in the Macarena, the chicken dance, and similar in-place dances with only a few grouches like myself declining to participate.

Ultimately, the stars of “We Gotta Bingo” are the audience. If they don’t exuberantly throw themselves into the evening then it becomes a long and flat night. But at least on opening night the capacity crowd was game for anything and the decibel count rarely wavered out of the red zone. The audience was heavily populated with millennials, indicating that the show would be a lure for youngish date night folks who want to kick back, laugh and drink, and maybe get lucky in a bingo game. The theater’s location is good and the price is right. “We Gotta Bingo” will need strong word of mouth to reach hit status, but the opening night crowd certainly sounded convinced.

“We Gotta Bingo” is playing an open run at Chicago Theater Works, 1113 West Belmont Avenue. Performances are Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 8:30 p.m., and Sunday at 5 p.m. Tickets are $49. Call 312 391 0404 or visit
www.wegottabingo.com.

                   The show gets a rating of 3 stars. August 2015
            

         Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com.

Like Dan on Facebook. Become a Friend!!!

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