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Theater Wed Jun 26 2013

The Half-Brothers Mendelssohn : Strange Tree Creates Head-Spinning Trips in the Time Machine

What year is it? The opening in 1929 is the only time you'll be sure.

The Half-Brothers Mendelssohn begins with a dignified scene. It's a funeral. The corpse (Joseph Stearns) is at rest in a raised coffin. The mourners are dressed in black. The funeral program informs us that The Rev. Christopher Herbert (Cory Aiello) will give the eulogy and his daughter Margaret (Audrey Flegel) will play selections from Felix Mendelssohn on a piano that someone forgot to have tuned. There also will be "Words From Family Members."

Yes, there will be words. Dueling speeches from two widows, in fact (Kate Nawrocki and Jenifer Henry Starewich). And there, 10 minutes into the play, sanity ends.


Stuart Ritter and Brandon Ruiter; photo by Emily Schwartz

The Half-Brothers Mendelssohn is presented by the Strange Tree Group at Signal Ensemble Theatre. The actors perform on a floor-level space with audience seated on three sides. The position of honor belongs to the time machine. The action rockets back and forth from 1929 to 1908, trying to solve problems brought about by the abrupt 1908 departure of Alice (Nawrocki) from her marriage to Joseph Mendelssohn (Stearns). Alice and Joseph's son, Theo (Stuart Ritter), is a physicist who has built a time machine. It's an amazing visual assemblage of gears, clocks, lights - and a typewriter. No merely projected image, this.

This clever, funny, somewhat berserk world-premiere play, written by Elizabeth Bagby, runs 100 minutes with one intermission. Before the play or during intermission, audience members are invited to write profound (or silly) statements or calculations about time and physics on the black walls leading in to the theater. (Chalk provided.)

Director Thrisa Hodits does an amazing job of keeping the madness straight as Theo coaxes his time machine to change the past and alter the future and deliver the happiness he lost when Alice abandoned the family. He builds the time machine to go back to April 21, 1908, just before his mother left. He types instructions on a clackety manual typewriter, formerly used by his mother "to write peace treaties."

Alice, a photographer, is an early feminist played with energy and charisma by Nawrocki. She laments in 1908: "I'm dying here. I can't be happy here. So many people tell a woman what she should be.... I have given until I have very little left of myself." So she departs with Angelus (Andy Hager), the goofy gardener who claims he is a physicist named Einstein. They go off to attend the photography exposition in Philadelphia. (Alice's camera, by the way, looks like an old Brownie box camera.

After Alice leaves, Joseph marries Henrietta (Starewich). Their son Nicholas (Brandon Ruiter) plays young Theo in the 1908 scenes.

Best line of the play: Theo to his half-brother, Nicholas, once they have zoomed back to a year before his brother's birth: "I'm trying to make it so you were never born." A big brother's fondest wish.

Later, Theo says: Why shouldn't I hate you?
Nicholas: Because we're brothers?
Theo: That has never been a reason in the history of brothers.

This isn't a sci-fi story about time travel. Playwright Bagby has woven a creative scheme about family, love and surprises. The final scene with Joseph and Theo is touching. The cast is uniformly excellent in its comic timing. The set design by Emily Schwartz and Kate Nawrocki is simple and elegant with painted floor diagrams and images that drop into place as the plot progresses.

Strange Tree raised production money through Indiegogo, an international crowdfunding platform similar to Kickstarter. The Indiegogo project raised a little more than their $2500 goal to build the time machine. Donors were acknowledged in the playbill at levels named for famous physicists.


The Half-Brothers Mendelssohn runs through July 20 at Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W Berenice. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 7pm. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased online. More information is available by emailing

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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