Accidental Critic: Pop Waits

Pop Waits, created by Molly Brennan & Malic White
Directed by Halena Kays, Music direction by Spencer Meeks
Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland, Chicago, IL


Photo: Joe Mazza @ Brave Lux

Don’t let the marketing description of Pop Waits deceive you.

The show bills itself as “an athletic, participatory, clown provocation to write a song.” Sound like fun? Yes, and it is. But before you walk in expecting a rip-roaring good time, prepare yourself by digging a bit deeper into the show’s description:

“Partners and performers Malic White and Molly Brennan both struggle with depression and rely on music to yank themselves out of despair. With the help of a live band and the audience (that’s YOU), White and Brennan summon the sacred powers of their heroes, Iggy Pop and Tom Waits, to write a song of their own.”

That’s a bit closer to the real experience—with emphasis on the struggle with depression.

Playing through March 12 at Chicago’s Neo-Futurarium, this largely two-person show uses music, clowning, dance and conversation to explore themes ranging from mental illness and depression, to love and the psyche of the artist. Sadness and depression are central, even as White and Brennan play, wrestle, dance and clown around on stage. They talk with each other and the audience about very personal struggles with depression, despair, and suicidal yearning. Sitting in the audience, you feel their pain, as well as their love for each other; by the end of the show, you’d be hard-pressed not to truly care for these two young people.

This is a highly personal show, intimate and engaging and clearly drawn from personal experience. It swings from hilarity to sudden, shocking sadness, then back again, repeatedly, as Brennan and White simultaneously seem to portray characters and live out their own lives on stage. “We are wrestling the fictions of ourselves,” White says, capturing perfectly the struggle between a desire for honest, intimate connection and the instinct to put on characters as armor.

It’s a very raw performance, both emotionally and in its staging. The performers seem to careen on and off stage, into and away from each other, but always back together. The music swings from blaring punk to gentle ballad, with an in-studio band that handles both equally well; and both Brennan and music director Spencer Meeks offer credible, enjoyable imitations of Tom Waits. Some of the songs are Iggy Pop’s; others are original works written by Brennan and Meeks, including, notably, “Heaven’s a Bar in Chicago” (featured near the end of the video trailer below).

The show’s not for everyone. The music is loud (including “both ‘rock’ and ‘roll,’” as Brennan warns the audience while offering prophylactic earplugs at the start of the performance); and there are strobe lights and partial nudity. It’s also participatory, so be prepared to get out of your seat and join the rest of the audience for dancing in an impromptu mosh pit. The crowd when I went was young and energetic, and happy to engage directly with the performers.

Brennan is extremely charismatic on stage, and both performers seem heart-wrenchingly vulnerable. This is a show full of both sweetness and suffering; be prepared for both.

Pop Waits at The Neo-Futurarium

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KimTankMich-eilKim Kishbaugh is no kind of artist at all, but a lover of art in many different forms. She travels through life with an open mind and open eyes in search of magic, and sometimes finds it. She is Escape Into Life‘s social media editor and a long-time journalist with an unsettling history of seeing the companies she works for go out of business. She blogs occasionally at


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