Shows like The Half Mendelsohn Brothers by Strange Tree remind me exactly why Chicago has one of the greatest arrays of theatre groups in the United States. In no other city could an experimental and imaginative production of this quality be performed as successfully and beautifully as it was.
The Half-Brothers Mendelssohn starts out in the year 1929 at the funeral of Joseph Mendelssohn (Joe Stearns). Joseph’s 32 year old son Theo Mendelssohn (Stuart Ritter) believes he can blast back twenty years in a time machine he’s been building to 1908 in order to keep his mother, Alice (Kate Nawrocki), from leaving the family when he was 11 years old. Theo’s younger half-brother, Nicholas Mendelssohn (Brandon Ruiter), realizes that this would result in his Dad never falling in love with his own mother, Henrietta (Jennifer Starewich), and thus preventing his eventual birth years later. Nicholas instantly goes about trying to sabotage his half-brother’s plan. He and the “slow-witted” gardener, Angelus (Andy Hager), end up joining Theo on his journey through time. Eventually both half-brothers come to find out that they have more in common than either of them realized and Theo comes to accept the past and let go.
If you’re a fan of sci-fi television shows such as Dr. Who? or Lost, and I must admit I’m a fan of both, you will undoubtedly love this show. It contains many of the same themes that are present in both such as the conflicts between science and faith, the competition between opposites in life, the practical issues with altering time, and most importantly (one of the hardest lessons in life to come to terms with) learning to let go of the past and live in the present. But even if you’re not a sci-fi nerd you’ll still find yourself being thoroughly enjoyed by this fascinating and heartfelt production. It is written in such a way that makes it comprehendible to a general audience.
However this is not a story about time travel so much as it is about the human condition. Playwright Elizabrth Bagby used time travel as a tool in order to expand upon the deeper elements involved. She does this by giving most of the attention to the characters struggles and desires. And thus when they go back in time we’re able to get a literal look at why the characters are the way they are. It was a way to give everyone more colors and, even better, it brought out the heart and humor in some touching and truthful ways.
What is most impressive is that Bagby was able to give every character their own “voice”, rather than having all the characters sound like their speaking from the writer’s point of view as is typical in many original plays. And while some scenes could use some additional trimming, Bagby largely avoids the trap of “over-writing” that many new writers fall into. Overall, for a new work, the material is surprisingly cohesive.
This is a show that deals with “two-halves” in ways that are symbolized throughout the script. The most obvious being the two “half-brothers” Nicholas and Theo. Theo being the older more scientific odd one and Nicholas being the more religious and fun-loving half-sibling. In addition Theo’s mother Alice is a spirited vibrant woman who always says what’s on her mind. She represents the new type of activist females that were emerging in the early 20th century and shaping its future. While on the other side Nicholas’s mother, Henrietta, is more sternly conservative and religious. She in contrast represents the more traditional women of the past. And the other opposing “halves” that are explored are the reverend Christopher Herbert (Cory Aiello) a gentle and sweet man who has longed for Henrietta’s affection and contrasting that with his neurotic and nervous daughter Margaret (Audrey Flegel) of whom both Theo and Nicholas have also longed for.
Having the original time of the play set in the 1920s was an ingenious way of giving further significance to the premise of the show itself. The 20s were a decade where the past of the 19th century was conflicting and clashing with the newness and appeal of the 20th century, where there was a thrill in trying out new ideas, a temptation in exploring the unknown, and where uncertainties of what the future may hold were at their height. And by going back in time to 1908 you get to see more of the mirror opposite symbolism prevalent in the script. The 1900s were a simpler and more innocent era. It was a time where the prospects of the future seemed happily on the horizon. Had the show been set in the present-day it would have lost this subtle significance and would not have worked as effectively as it did.
Strange-Tree is a theatre group known for doing creative plays that involve engaging the audience in some aspect. In this production no one is brought up on stage, or openly pointed out, but the audience is acknowledged in small ways throughout the production. The effect is odd at times because the use of the audience wasn’t established as well as it could have in the first ten minutes of the play. In Act 2 there was a moment where, through the misuse of the time machine, the two brothers suddenly find themselves transported to 2013, literally “on stage”, in this play about their adventures. The two actors pulled it off compellingly, and very comically, but the whole scene would have worked better if the cast had not acknowledged the audience at all up-until that point in the script. The moment does okay as it is, but it’s just not as striking or artful as it could have been done.
But if that’s a flaw of director Thrisa Hodits, then it’s really her only flaw of the night, and a minor one at that. Hodits’s staging in particular has a clear focus. Despite many scenes with numerous characters on stage in a small space, she knew exactly where our attention should be each time. The effect is brilliant, engaging, and fun to watch.
There was very little in the way of sets to tell you that these actors were transported back in time, but from their imaginations and from their behavior you feel that they were. The simplistic set design by Kate Nawrocki and Emily Schwartz was still alluring and effectual though. By using nothing more than paintings and posters that drop from the ceiling it allowed Theo’s time machine to receive the wonderful and detailed attention it deserved for it to stand out. Overall the “less is more” concept was a perfect balance for the set of this show.
By far the best thing about this production is its tremendous and superbly talented cast. Brandon Ruiter as Nicholas Mendelssohn and Stuart Ritter as Theo Mendelssohn are about as perfectly cast as you can get. They actually feel like real rivaling siblings and their comedic timing together is incredible. They truly make these guys real people and you have total sympathy for what they’re going through. The lovely Audrey Flegel as their anxious love interest Margret was a pure delight to watch on stage. Her character could easily border on annoying, but she gave Margret a truthful approach that made her very intriguing. You can see why both brothers would be interested in her, and is has more to do with her mystery than her beautiful figure. Andy Hager as the “dumb witted” wacky gardener, Angelus, was also perfectly cast. This guy is a riot and he is able to pull off a dead-pan style of humor with amusing effect. Kate Nawrocki as Theo’s mother Alice and Jennifer Starewich as Nicholas’s mother Henrietta both gave the two women the opposing personalities and actions that they deserved.
Bottom Line: The Half-Brothers Mendelssohn is Highly Recommended, and that’s something I don’t get to say very often. This is one of those rare new works of theatre that is daring enough to take risks without going overboard. It succeeds not only due to its witty and well-written script, its wonderful direction and its simplistic set design, but primarily because the performers have really done their acting work and it shows. This cast took a premise that could easily come off as campy and they gave it truth. It gave everything a level of reality to an absurd story that is missing from many shows here in Chicago. The script does have some silly gags and some wacky characters, but the actors bring out the humor naturally without it feeling like the jokes are forced upon us. Amazing original works of theatre like this are hard to find nowadays. Go see it while you can. This cast has really done their homework and they deserve an audience.
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes (roughly). Includes a 15 minute Intermission
Location: Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice Ave, Chicago, IL 60613
Directions & Parking: http://www.signalensemble.com/contact/directions.html
Runs through: July 20, 2013
Curtain Times: Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00 PM. Sundays at 7:00 PM Note: there will not be a performance on Thursday, July 4th or Friday, July 5th.
Box Office: (773) 347-1350
Tickets: $25; $15 student and industry tickets are available at the door nightly (subject to availability).
Benefit Performance: Wednesday, July 17th at 8:00 PM ($50 per person includes ticket, cocktails, hors d’oeuvers, set tour, costume contest, and exclusive Strange Tree memorabilia.
Directed by Theresa Hodits, Created and Written by Elizabeth Bagby
Set Design by Kate Nawrocki & Emily Schwartz, Costume Design by Delia Baseman, Lighting Design by Becca Jeffords, Sound Design by Michael Huey, Fight Choreography by Wes Clark
Cast includes: Cory Aiello, Audrey Flegel, Andy Hager, Kate Nawrocki, Stuart Ritter, Brandon Ruiter, Jennifer Starewich, and Joe Stearns
Understudies: Ed Rutherford, Karen Shimmin, and Ben Hertel