At the Chicago Theater Works
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
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