Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Half-Brothers Mendelssohn/The Strange Tree Group

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Photo by Emily Schwartz.

Photo: Emily Schwartz

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Director Shane Carruth’s 2004 movie “Primer” discusses the hazards and pitfalls of time travel, as two engineers voyage into the future to enhance their fortunes and back to plot against each other and cover their tracks. Playwright Elizabeth Bagby’s motives are much less venial; her characters just want the happiness they think they’ve been denied.

On the day of their father Joseph’s (Joseph Stearns) funeral, half-brothers Theo (Stuart Ritter) and Nicholas Mendelssohn (Brandon Ruiter) are surprised by a visit from Theo’s long-absent mother Alice (Kate Nawrocki). Theo puts his newly created time machine to work; he’ll go back in time to prevent his mother’s departure and have the happy childhood he should have had. Unfortunately, that means it’s curtains for Nicholas, whose birth will be prevented when his father fails to meet second wife Henrietta (Jenifer Starewich). Hijinks ensue as the brothers defy physics and morality; they fly back and forth in time, creating parallel universes and different narratives.

The ensemble manages to invest the characters with the heart and thought that keeps them from becoming caricatures; Andy Hager’s sleepy, deadpan gardener shows us passion and longing; Starewich’s stiff-back second wife’s moral inflexibility can be useful when applied where needed. Ruiter and Ritter handle the physical comedy with aplomb, yet manage to sell the bittersweet acceptance of their lives as they are.

Bagby’s creative approach to complex narrative could be enhanced by some even more outrageous scenarios, some punchlines could be punched up, but the alternative dimensions entertain as is. Thrisa Hodits’ immersive staging creates numerous opportunities for audience interaction; the pacing hits the right comedic speed. But the star of the show is Nawrocki and Emily Schwartz’s set design, paired with Delia Baseman’s costumes, which lend an Edward-Gorey-meets-Charles-Addams-in-the-1920s kind of air. The whole thing conjures poignant longing for pasts that never were and futures that can never be. (Lisa Buscani)

At Signal Ensemble Theater, 1802 West Berenice, strangetree.org. Through July 20.

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