Ah sure, any excuse for a drink and a bit of an old song. That’s the simple Irish equation that has turned “Flanagan’s Wake” into one of the longest-running shows in Chicago theater history.
Who better than the Irish to make you laugh and cry in nearly the same breath? Sure isn’t our history so tragic you’d nearly burst your sides laughing at it?
Like most great Irish send-offs, “Flanagan’s Wake” is an interactive affair that invites you to join some oddball villagers as they mourn the passing of one of their own as only the Irish can. But it will be tears of laughter, not sorrow, that flow freely.
“We’re so excited for the New York cousins to finally have a chance to come to the village of Grapplin, Ireland and pay their respects to poor dead Flanagan,” director and co-creator Amy Binns-Calvey tells the Irish Voice.
“Given his great love for the theater, it’s very fitting that Flanagan is finally being waked on the great off-white-way.”
The show will be the first production set for an open run at the new Theater at Sweet Caroline’s, located on 45th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.
Binns-Calvey has been with “Flanagan’s Wake” in almost all of its guises since it first stepped out in 1994. And although she’s Irish American herself, there’s no doubt that she and her talented cast have spoofed the reality of an Irish country wake with flying colors. (Full disclosure: your reviewer is from County Donegal and knows what a traditional Irish country wake actually looks like).
But how did all this madness get started?
“We run an improvisational show in Chicago and we almost always end up playing Irish characters,” says Binns-Calvey. “One weekend in 1994 we decided to do them exclusively about an Irish wake. We thought at the time it would be one weekend and that would be it, but the show is still chugging along.”
“Flanagan’s” has developed a life of its own, travelling nationally and providing gainful employment to hordes of actors in the process over the years. And because its audience interactive it never get stale either.
No two shows are ever the same. Even native-born Irish people have been knocked out by it.
When the show starts it’s just assumed that everyone knows Flanagan -- both the actors and the audience -- and so everyone has gathered to celebrate his life the way the Irish do best, by telling stories and singing songs about the man until he practically becomes a myth before your very eyes.
“We’ve been very lucky because when the genuine article -- a native born Irish person -- comes to the show we hold our breath and we’re just delighted when they love it. That’s the whole reason for it,” says Binns-Calvey.
When people come to see a show they often have something to say, but there’s very few theatrical pieces that actually allow them to. When you go to some interactive shows off-Broadway you’ll see people being made fun of or humiliated.
But “Flanagan’s Wake” is never about that. Whoever comes in the door is family.
The moment you arrive one of the cast will ask your name, write it down, add a Patrick for the guys or Mary if you’re a girl. If your first name is Brandon you’ll get a name tag that reads Patrick Brandon; if you’re name is Maxine you’ll be tagged Mary Maxine. It’s this kind of gentle fun that inspires this endlessly inventive troupe to ever higher levels of absurdity and mayhem.
And in case you think you’re in dodgy hands, think again. Although this show is light hearted the people performing it are theater heavyweights.
Currently Binns-Calvey is also directing a spoof of “The View” in Chicago, where she lives. She was an artist in residence with the State of Illinois and an instructor with the Art Institute of Chicago.
Playful fun can be a rather serious business, it turns out. Check out this sweetly funny show and you’ll go home singing.
“Flanagan’s Wake” is playing at the Theater at Sweet Caroline’s, 322 West 45thStreet. Performances are on are on Thursday through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 4:30 p.m., and Mondays at 7:30 p.m. For tickets call 212-977-3884.