"Half-Brothers Mendelssohn" A Wild, Heartfelt Ride Through Time and Space


(Center, right, left) Stuart Ritter (Theo Mendelssohn) cranks up his time machine while his half-brother Nicolas (Brandon Ruiter) and the family gardener (Andy Hager) are taken along for the ride in Strange Tree's Half-Brothers Mendelssohn.

While the sounds of the Metra shuttling passengers to and from the suburbs is slightly audible outside of the Signal Ensemble Theatre, Strange Tree Group's “Half-Brothers Mendelssohn” shuttles its audience through space and time as Theo Mendelssohn tries to improve his childhood through the use of a home-built time machine.

While empathetic towards Theo's endeavor, it's hard to predict the woes of time travel, such as killing your half-brother, falling in love with your now half-sister and shuffling your own memories like a deck of playing cards.

Elizabeth Bagby's play, under the direction of Thrisa Hodits, opens at the funeral of Joesph Nathaniel Mendelssohn (Joseph Stearns) in 1928, with his two sons, two widows and his half-witted gardener paying their final respects. While Stearns acting is fine throughout the play, he certainly proves he can play a corpse. Already in the coffin while theatre goers are still shuffling in, he holds the death pose for near twenty minutes before the wonders of time travel animate him once again.

He isn't missing much at his own wake, though, as his estranged first wife shows up and the family begins feuding, ignoring the Reverend's (Cory Aiello) attempts to proceed with the ceremony. We learn quickly that despite the genius of Theo – he has built a time machine in the family's shed – his upbringing left much to be desired.

His half-brother Nicholas (Brandon Ruiter) is in seminary, while his own estranged mother Alice (Kate Nawrocki) fancies herself a philosopher and Bolshevik sympathizer, tapping out treatises against religion when she is not packing picnic baskets.

Her son Theo is also seeing her for the first time since she faked her own death in a train wreck after leaving the family twenty years prior. Convinced that her leaving indirectly killed his father and ruined his childhood, Theo devises a plan to prevent his mother from ever leaving by use of his time machine. He is not bothered by the fact that this means the death – or at least cease of existence – of his half-brother Nicholas.


Andy Hager, Stuart Ritter and Brandon Ruiter in “Half-Brothers Mendelssohn,” running through July 20 at Signal Ensemble Theatre.

Nicholas, of course, sees this as less than acceptable and the two wreak havoc on the space-time continuum as they fight in the past, present and future.

While anyone born after 1980 associates time travel with the under-powered, gull-wing sports car of an automotive engineer turned coke dealer, Half-Brother pays homage to the wacky, steam-punk designs that we know from H.G. Welles. Covered in clocks and wires, and trading in the DeLorean for an Underwood, Theo's machine hums, buzzes and glows as the brothers travel back and forth between 1908 and 1928 in search of a better future. Or past. Or present.

Half-Brothers takes the audience on a comical, but also heartfelt look at the paradox that is created when one tries to change other people's perceptions of who they are and who they love. The cast does a fantastic job in presenting the eclectic group of characters, from theologians to scientists, lovers to haters, and geniuses to dopes as they attempt to alter time in their favor, regardless of the side effects.

“Half-Brothers Mendelssohn” runs through July 20 at Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Bernice Ave., Chicago on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at www.strangetree.org. For calender information visit www.theatreinchicago.com