The Life and Death of Madam Barker at Red Tape Theatre: Theater review

Molly Brennan's Madam Barker character gets an entourage and her own rollicking, raucously charged show

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  • Photograph: Bridget Schultz

    The Life and Death of Madam Barker at Red Tape Theatre

  • Photograph: Bridget Schultz

    Molly Brennan, center, in The Life and Death of Madam Barker at Red Tape Theatre

  • Photograph: Bridget Schultz

    The Life and Death of Madam Barker at Red Tape Theatre

  • Photograph: Bridget Schultz

    Molly Brennan in The Life and Death of Madam Barker at Red Tape Theatre

  • Photograph: Bridget Schultz

    The Life and Death of Madam Barker at Red Tape Theatre

  • Photograph: Bridget Schultz

    The Life and Death of Madam Barker at Red Tape Theatre

Photograph: Bridget Schultz

The Life and Death of Madam Barker at Red Tape Theatre


In this cabaret spectacular built around the final performance of its title performer and her troupe, Madam Barker—as full of lies as she is of gin—will entertain you with the support of her bedazzled, cross-dressed Dames and Porters while John the Piano Player, quiet and acerbic as all good piano players are, plays original songs as bombastic as this production.

Molly Brennan’s Barker was originally introduced in 2009's 500 Clown and the Elephant Deal, and that character’s split personality between cabaret star and clown performer now extends to the entire cast. It’s as if Barker's surrounded by a cloud of charged particles, each with their own personality and all with too much glitter. Half the laughs of Madam Barker come from a constant assault of side-gags from her coterie as they cavort around the intentionally ramshackle set and scrounge props from junk. The ensemble is so infectiously ridiculous and comical I'd believe the whole production was just their excuse to have fun with one another.

But woe befall the reviewer who forgets to mention Madam Barker and faces her wrath. At first I thought her the main character, but that's far too small a credit. She's the linchpin of the cast, the production, and the emotional journey of the play. Barker is not always the funniest person on stage, nor most interesting, yet she is cabaret. Her mixture of self-indulgence, fatalism and romance is the medium through which everything propagates. However, she never fails to rocket to the forefront when propelled by John Fournier’s original score, which I'm still humming days later. 

The Life and Death of Madame Barker is entertainment. And yet Brooke Allen's script deftly drifts in and out of the morose, pulling apart the fun and games with Barker’s oncoming demise (it’s called and Death, didn’t you notice?) and the looming onset of reality. When the hidden depths of the production are foregrounded, the results give meaning to all the ridiculousness beforehand—I’ll spoil no more than that.

And what else is there to say? The set is transportive. Eric Hoff’s direction is effervescent. Do you want to watch a husky man with fake purple eyelashes drag a cart with an angel on it? Do you enjoy offensive puns? Do you like music backed by by tap-dancing and a wooden whale? What in god’s name are you waiting for?

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