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Chicago by John Olson

Beer
The Neo-Futurists

Also see John's reviews of Desire Under the Elms and Xanadu

Beer
Curtis Williams, Ryan Walters, Eliza Burmester, Laura McKenzie and Kurt Chiang
This year's Super Bowl again featured beer commercials that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce and millions to air, but the most innovative beer marketing effort of Super Bowl Weekend may have been this little musical about the making of beer, produced by experimental theater company the Neo-Futurists and promoting the virtues of micro-brewing. It's hard to decide if Beer is a grass-roots industrial show promoting the new Metropolitan Brewery, or maybe a piece of agitprop theater raging against the advancing mediocritization of society by global corporate monoliths. Or is it another example of co-opting child education methods to teach and entertain an adult audience a la Avenue Q? Whatever box it's breaking out of or into, the Neo-Futurists' Beer is a good time and an impressive display of talent involving actors, life-size puppets, projections and a five-piece rock band.

Beer, written by Neo-Futurist company members Sean Benjamin and Steve Mosqueda, and performed at the tiny Metropolitan Brewery just two blocks from the Neo-Futurists home, borrows the familiar kid-lit device of transporting a child into a fantasy world where he or she learns important lessons. Here, a 10-year-old boy named Boon takes a taste of his stepfather's beer, only to vomit it right up and awaken in a strange land where he's alone except for his new friend, Puke. Yes, Puke is his puke, expelled from his body as a consequence of his underage swig. Puke—one of many puppets ingeniously designed by art director Bernie McGovern from simple household objects—is made of bits of foam rubber dressed in an old lady's pink bathroom, and voiced and operated by Eliza Burmester. Boon, played by Ryan Walters dressed in a Milwaukee Brewers baseball jersey and cap, soon gets an explanation of his circumstances from the "Beer Geeks," the band whose members play a variety of parts and sometimes function as Greek Chorus. Boon is apparently the "chosen one" who must learn how to brew beer properly so he can save the world from the inferior product manufactured and marketed by the evil Bud Miller, maker of the world's most popular brew, Millweiser. The Beer Geeks send Boon to see the "Sea Bull," a wizard-like character made of empty beer kegs who is mounted above the playing area, and is slowly dying as the art of brewing quality beer is lost. (The name is a reference to the Siebel Institute in Chicago, which is billed as "America's Oldest Brewing School.") The Sea Bull sends Boon off on an odyssey to learn how to brew quality craft beers. (Whether the 10-year-old will do any more tasting is not specified.)

Along his journey, Boon meets the ingredients for the perfect beer while learning the purpose of each in creating the suds. First it's Matilda, the grain, a puppet with a plant-like head and a dress made of a grain sack. Next are Burton and Pilsen—hard and soft water—two puppets made of empty water or milk containers. Then the hops known as "The Three Floyds," and finally a microscopic Yeast man seen only through magnification and projection. At each stop, as is noted self-referentially by one of the band members, there's usually a song. The score (presumably by Benjamin and Mosqueda since the credits don't specify the songwriters) is a mix of genres including country western, heavy metal, jazz and hip hop and an 11:00 number for Puke, entitled "I'm Puke, Dammit," defiantly delivered by Ms. Bermester. Musical director Laura McKenzie leads the combo—each of whom (Brandon Campbell, Kurt Chiang, Mike Pryzgoda, and Curtis Williams) prove to be winning solo performers over the course of the 70-minute show.

The journey also includes a subplot in which Boon promises to get Puke "back home." "Back home" being inside Boon's stomach, you don't really want to know how that will be accomplished. There's also a climactic battle with the evil Bud Miler himself, deliciously incarnated by Chiang.

The venue for this environmental production, the Metropolitan Brewery, makes a perfectly decent performance space, with the band on a platform just above and behind a floor level primary playing area that has ample room for set pieces designed by Chris Wooten to be rolled on. There's also a stairway leading up to a catwalk for a secondary playing area. The lighting by Maggie Fullilove-Nugent is better than we see in most storefront theaters in town. Director Dan Kerr-Hobart keeps the hour at a high energy level and the tone, though satirical, is never sarcastic and never sells its humor too hard, having the confidence to let the verbal and visual jokes land as they will.

The obvious question is whether one needs to see a 70-minute musical about the making of beer, but by 10 minutes into the show, the audience is likely to forget that and just become lost in the fun of it all. Still, in a time when the US has just two major breweries and they're both largely owned by foreign interests, maybe the decline of entrepreneurism and individuality in manufacturing such a popular product is a perfectly good topic for agitprop.

Beer will be performed Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. at the Metropolitan Brewery, 5121 N. Ravenswood (enter on Winona St.) through March 7. Tickets are "Pay what you can" on Thursday, and $15.00 on Fridays and Saturdays ($10 for students or seniors with ID). For tickets, call the Neo-Futurists Hotline (773-275-5255) or visit www.neofuturists.org.


Photo: Andrew Collings

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-- John Olson



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