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Flanagan’s Wake
Conceived by Jack Bronis
Created by Jimmy Binns, Amy Binns-Calvey, Geoff Binns-Calvey, Jack Bronis, Mark Czoke, Phil Lusardi, Patricia Musker and Bonnie Shadrake
Music by Bonnie Shadrake, Lyrics by Jimmy Binns and Bonnie Shadrake
Directed by Lee Anne Matthews
Playhouse at Westport Plaza
February 8, 2020

Teresa Doggett, Dustin Petrillo, Jennifer Theby-Quinn, Lynn Berg, Alan Knoll
Photo by John Flack
Playhouse at Westport Plaza

The latest locally-produced production at the Playhouse at Wesport Plaza has an enthusiastic, talented cast. That’s about the best I can say about Flanagan’s Wake, a new production of a show that was apparently a hit in Chicago. A piece that relies heavily on improvisation and audience participation, the show certainly has its moments. Still, there isn’t much new here, and it seems the entertainment value depends mostly on stereotypes and hopes for good contributions from the audience.

Billed as “The Hilarious Interactive Irish Wake”, this show does have some fun participatory elements, such as making the audience wear “Irishized” nametags, and having a working bar onstage where theatregoers can buy drinks before the show and during intermission. The setup is as you might expect–a collection of characters gathers onstage to mourn a dearly departed friend, Flanagan, whose coffin is the centerpiece of the set, which is a pub in a small Irish town. The characters include some expected “types”, such as the offbeat Catholic Priest, Father Flanagan (Alan Knoll), the stingy pub proprietor who is also the mayor (Lynn Berg), the departed Flanagan’s domineering but incoherent mother (Bill Burke), and his longtime fiancee Fiona (Jennifer Theby-Quinn), who keeps trying to get a bit too affectionate with Flanagan’s coffin. In the midst of a gaggle of oft-used tropes about Irish people (heavy drinking, telling heavily embellished stories, etc.) is the audience element, as the characters take turns paying their respects to Flanagan with emotional speeches, the subjects of which are dependent on contributions from the audience. And, well, these contributions can sometimes be great, and other times not-so-great, so as not to give the players much to work with. While this is a fairly expected issue with improv-dependent shows, this one is so dependent on the improv aspects that poor contributions can especially diminish the entertainment value, since the setup is basically just a series of speeches and songs that can get tedious if they’re not interesting, no matter how hard the talented cast tries to make them interesting.

So yes, there are some fun moments here, and some memorable performances, particularly from Theby-Quinn, Noll, and Burke, as well as musicians and music directors Charlie Mueller and Patrick Blindauer. The set, constructed by TheatreMarine, and costumes by Elizabeth Henning contribute to the overall atmosphere well enough, and the cast does about as well as they can, but still, the overall result is underwhelming and predictable, right up to the “twist” near the end.

I generally love improvisation and improv-based shows, but Flanagan’s Wake is is a mixed bag. It has an enthusiastic tone and a talented cast, but the problems here are a little too big to overcome. I imagine the experience will be slightly different on different days, and that’s good. I hope future audiences give this cast more to work with. It may be worth seeing just for that unknown element. Otherwise, it comes across as something of an enthusiastic–but largely unsuccessful–experiment.

Cast of Flanagan’s Wake
Photo: Playhouse at Westport Plaza

Flanagan’s Wake is playing at the Playhouse at Westport Plaza until March 21, 2020

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