“Flanagan’s Wake” @ Chicago Theater Works

“Flanagan’s Wake” @ Chicago Theater Works

Theater Review by Mary Crylen

3 out of 4 stars

If you are looking to start your St. Paddy’s Day celebrations early – head over to Chicago Theater Works for a Chicago staple, Flanagan’s Wake. This interactive Irish wake is an experience you won’t soon forget. In a small fictional town in Ireland, the beloved local, Flanagan, has died. Mourners gather to pay their respects, but in traditional Irish fashion – not without a stop at the pub first. Jack Bronis, original director and Bonnie Shadrake, original Music director, return for this production which will keep everyone laughing even as they leave the theater. From a literary standpoint this play may sound familiar due to another comic work, James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” is roughly paralleled for its structure around death, multiple characters and a reflection of Irish culture, language and mythology. Flanagan’s Wake, which has played in Chicagoland area steadily since 1994, is a riotous good time! Praised for its impressive improvisation, the performance’s hilarious details lie within the cast and audience interaction. Each collaborated anecdote about Flanagan himself, speculation of his death and claims to Flanagan’s estate ensures no two shows are the same. 

From the moment you step in the space and find your seat, you are immersed. In dinner theater style with only the bar open and serving, the locals of Flanagan’s home town with name tags in hand ask the age old funeral question, “How did you know him (Flanagan)”? You become a part of the production and the familiarity of dialogue between characters and audience feels inclusive and not so much like a barrier. The blocking throughout the piece creates a full and round atmosphere. Actors move in a constant rotation from stage to bar to center and sides of the room, even sitting at different tables helps keep the performance feeling fresh. Tables placed in a half circle towards the stage front and center holds a large wooden crate with the words “this was up” stamped on the side – only upside down. 

The actors of this production deserve high praise for their quick wit and ability to read a room. As many may not be the most forth-coming, they expertly balance the raucous groups with the more subdued. Those who fear audience interaction, should not be dissuaded as there are plenty of laughs and fun to be had without being put on the spot. One key to theatrical interactive plays, is the actor’s establishing a safe space and respecting the audience and knowing when to nudge a little or move on. The costuming is simple and characteristically telling – from Mother Flanagan’s full Victorian style dress to Kathleen’s ratty bag and hair. A nod to the simplistic stylings hits the final nail on the coffin and compliments the stark raw form that improvisation entails. Father Damon Fitzgerald, the sharp-tongued parish priest, and several other colorful characters breathe a light hearted life into a normally dismal event. True to a Shakespearean comedy including such motifs as stories, songs, dancing, and fights. Wildly funny, wildly Irish – this production is worth more than a pot o’gold. 

Flanagan’s Wake is playing now Fridays and Saturdays with an open-ended run at Chicago Theater Works. Tickets for the show range from $29-$34. A full bar is available for beverage purchases at all performances. Discounted tickets for groups of eight or more are available online. Please visit ChicagoTheaterWorks.com or call 312.391.0404 for more information.  

Mary Crylen is a photographer and writer based in Chicago. She is an alum of Southern Illinois University of Carbondale with a B.A. in English and a B.A. in Photography. She possesses a sincere passion for the arts and believes zeal shows through work. Follow her on Twitter!