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Red Tape’s ‘Madam Barker’ gets Kickstarter boost

'The Life Death Madam Barker' features Molly Brennan John Fournier. PHOTO BY AustD. Oie.

"The Life and Death of Madam Barker" features Molly Brennan and John Fournier. PHOTO BY Austin D. Oie.

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‘The Life and Death of Madam Barker,’ Oct. 14-Nov. 10, Red Tape Theatre, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, 621 W. Belmont. $25 (pay-what-you-can on Thursdays);

Updated: October 10, 2013 4:55PM

Right from the start, Molly Brennan knew she would never abandon Madam Barker. The colorful cabaret diva first made an appearance in 2009 as the ringmaster of “500 Clown and the Elephant Deal,” where, dressed in a series of outrageous wigs and costumes, she belted out John Fournier’s sexy, sultry songs (Fournier plays her faithful piano man).

“I knew this was a character I could play until I’m 89,” Brennan says laughing. “She’s eccentric and boisterous and has the best assets of Phyllis Diller and Miss Piggy and Hedwig.”

Since Madam Barker’s debut, Brennan and Fournier have continued to develop a following by performing at parties and fundraisers. It was while at a benefit performance at Red Tape Theatre that then artistic director James Palmer suggested developing a full-blown piece around Madam Barker and her piano-playing pal.

The first step for Red Tape was to raise additional funds for the show, which they estimated — with its 17 cast members — would be more expensive than any of the company’s previous productions. They turned to the popular crowdfunding website Kickstarter where a goal of $2,000 and beyond was met. (The final number was $2,270.)

“We decided that due to the size of our cast and creative team and... our target audience for this production, we could cast a wider net with our fundraising than in years past,” director of development Krista Taylor says. “As a company, we are grateful for the show of support from across the country.”

The next step was to build a story around Madam Barker. Playwright Brooke Allen immediately picked up on Brennan and Fournier’s “knack for earnest comedy,” says director Eric Hoff.

“If you look at the great physical comics of the first half of the 20th century, you notice that they’re all performing their bits with earnest, true attention to entertainment. There’s no sense of irony,” Hoff explains. “I think Brooke has captured that classical comedic style in her adaptation of Molly and John’s original material. The show approaches ridiculous, zany, and even raunchy comedy from a state of comedic purity.”

In her mind, Madam Barker is an aging starlet but, actually, it’s questionable whether she was ever really a star. She’s been performing for years and years with her troupe of faithful performers but now she announces this will be her last show, and it’s time to present her life story. But how will this affect her fellow performers?

“Madam Barker” is filled with Fournier’s original songs. He says he enjoys writing “dense and complicated lyrics with odd rhyme schemes, really obscure references and lots of jokes.”

“This kind of lyrically dense material is not easy to get across to people,” Fournier notes. “But when Molly does it everything lands with the audience. Creatively, for me, these songs are just so much fun to write.”

The look of the show references steampunk that Victorian-looking blend of modern and anachronistic styles. According to Hoff, it’s “a vaudevillian mixture of “Rocky Horror” meets The Muppets; a bit of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” with a dash of “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.”

“Aesthetically, the set, props and costumes are designed to make the audience feel like they’ve entered a somewhat ancient circus tent that has become dilapidated and weathered due to overuse and lack of care, but not because of disuse,” Hoff says. “The band of entertainers in Madam Barker’s world have worked tirelessly for millennium and plan to keep on entertaining the masses.”

Brennan, who is a member of 500 Clown and artistic director at Barrel of Monkeys, admits she’s never done anything quite like this show.

“I’m the throughline in a way that I’ve never been in any other show,” Brennan acknowledges. “In most roles, my character’s journey is part of a team. But Madam Barker really goes through something. It’s actually like real acting which is something I haven’t done in a really long time. And I’m having a lot of fun with it.”

Mary Houlihan is a Sun-Times freelance writer.

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