Yesterday I attended the latest show by Chicago’s Strange Tree Group, The Half-Brothers Mendelssohn, and was gleefully impressed. It’s a paradoxical time-traveling story of two half-brothers moving through space and time to find some peace in the wake of their shared father’s death. An original playwright by Elizabeth Bagby of Chicago, the plot explores the tropes and conflicts of science, compassion, family, music and reality.
Set in 1929, Theo Mendelssohn (Stuart Ritter) invents a time machine with the heroic quest to save his father’s life. His intent is to go back in time twenty-one years earlier to the day when his mother, Alice (Kate Nawrocki), left his now deceased father, Joseph Mendelssohn (Joe Stearns), and stop their separation. This, of course, would be upsetting to any half-brother whose mere existence would be corrupted and dependent on the outcome of this day. The conflict between the two half-brothers is hilariously written, based on this absurdity alone. Nicolas Mendelssohn (Brandon Ruiter) is the younger half-brother desperately fighting for his existence in the future by stopping Theo from messing with the past.
The show begins with the funeral of the half-brothers’ father, Joseph, and, unfortunately, it feels sort of like a funeral. It is a slow start despite the introduction of nearly every conflict in the story. The estranged widow, Alice, shows up, much to the distress of the second widow, Henrietta (Jennifer Henry Starewich). The opposition of these two could not be plainer. Alice is a fiery lady with the red hair to match her metropolitan, fame-seeking heart, while Henrietta is the rigid, Victorian sort. Both women achieve comedic presences arguing over the out-of-tune piano played by Margaret (Audrey Flegel).
The minister, Christopher Herbert (Cory Aiello), is completely confounded with attention deficient disorder, distracted by his own memory and any feeble, floral scent. All of these characters are versatile in their roles, and as the half-brothers travel back in time to change the past, they change the people too. The small cast all had their own quirky one-liners that were worth a giggle. I thought the three women were exceptional in their roles and looked great in the costumes by Delia Baseman.
The theatre is extremely intimate with few seats that edge out onto the stage. The minimalist set, designed by Emily Schwartz and Kate Nawrocki, was like looking at a hand-painted blueprint for a well-landscaped garden. It worked well for the traveling scheme set in A Midsummer Night’s Dream allusion. To the credit of director Thrisa Hodits, movement through the set was easy to follow in light of the small space. Running about two hours long with intermission, the play held my interest from the moment the time machine was revealed.
However, the opening scenes left something to be desired. The love interest of Nicolas Mendelssohn seems almost irrelevant and uninteresting to the rest of the story. Margaret and Nicolas have some obscure history that is presented right away. The drama of the opening love scene falls flat from the side of the younger half-brother. Nicolas (Ruiter) was like a pair of new headphones in need of time to burn into sound; it wasn’t until the first time-travel scene that I believed his character.
What I loved most was the time machine. Constructed from kitchen whisks and egg beaters, Christmas ornaments, a bicycle wheel, a typewriter, a slinky and, of course, blinking purple and orange lights, any scene with the contraption was laugh-out-loud funny. The interaction of the two half-brothers around this ridiculous end of the set was brilliantly entertaining.
I likened the character of Theo to Sheldon of The Big Bang Theory with the time-traveling look of Dr. Who. The muddy confusion of young Theo’s child-hood resemblance to half-brother Nicolas (both played by Ruiter) added another playful element to the already ludicrous plot. But the layers of magical realism were completely accepted on my part. Never once did I feel that the preposterous elements of the story were senseless. Instead, it was amusing and believable.
The funniest character is the only one who seemed to be unchanged by the passage of time, the gardener Angelus (Andy Hagar). Hagar’s demeanor had me slapping my knee at points from the out-of-touch, spacey humor. This only added to the already heavy allusions to Shakespeare. I think the play would be funny without this character, but it was like having Bill Murray in the scene; he might have been the best part.
I left the theatre still giggling, which is always a good sign from a comedy show. I would recommend seeing this story. It’s something you haven’t seen before, but only just. There’s some special interaction with the audience that comes as a fun surprise and changed my opinion about interactive theatre. Sometimes I find audience interaction to be a horror, but in this case it was clever and simultaneously hysterical.
The messages in the show are very obvious, and perhaps too openly stated by the characters. Yet there is still an ironic sense of humor the show maintains by pointing fun at itself and making heavy allusions to other work that kept me from rolling my eyes at the morals. I did really like it.
The Strange Tree Group Presents:
The Half-Brothers Mendelssohn
Signal Ensemble Theatre
1802 W. Berenice Ave. in Chicago
Friday, June 21 – Saturday, July 20, 2013
Tickets are on sale at the door nightly or at www.strangetree.org.
$25, $15 for students and industry