The Mysterious Elephant and the Terrible Tragedy of the Unlikely Addington Twins (*Who Kill Him)

Nobody does plays like the Strange Tree Group does plays. How do you define the stuff these guys do? Just listen to the title of their newest work, written by Strange Tree’s resident playwright Emily Schwartz:

The Mysterious Elephant and the Terrible Tragedy of the Unlikely Addington Twins (*Who Kill Him).

There’s just no pigeonholing a title like that. An Edward Gorey vibe permeates everything they do, certainly. Like last year’s extraordinary Mr. Spacky . . . The Man Who Was Continuously Followed by Wolves, The Mysterious Elephant features heightened dialogue and a Victorianesque setting juxtaposed with hilarious musical numbers and a sly awareness that the characters are in fact in a play. After just two full-length productions, the Strange Tree Group have created a style (shall we call it Schwartzian?) that, should anyone else attempt something similar, they would be accused of ripping off Strange Tree.

The Mysterious Elephant introduces us to the Addington Twins, Esther and Edward (the well-matched Carol Enoch and Matt Holzfiend). These orphans have inherited a mansion from their recently deceased Aunt Ernestine (Jennifer Marschand, hilariously severe in a 180-degree turn from her role in Mr. Spacky a year ago). At the house the twins encounter a strange Narrator (Weston Davis) who has been chronicling the fortunes of the Addington family for centuries. The twins’ adventure introduces them to a number of their dead ancestors, most notably Christoff, a re-animated corpse who just wants to be loved. Scott Cupper’s scene-stealing turn here is one of the highlights of the show.

And of course they meet the titular Elephant, a giant clockwork beast and family heirloom. The elephant (yes, there is an elephant on stage) is a hell of a creation, with a patchwork design that makes it look like a giant, well-loved stuffed animal. It is actor-operated by Thomas Zeitner, who also plays accordian as part of the musical ensemble. When you see the show (are you going to see the show? Go see the show!) take a moment during intermission or something and get a look at the elephant up close. The layout of the space does not allow a really good view of it during the performance.

I’m always a fan when a show chooses to embrace the knowledge that its audience is watching a play, rather than try to cover its tracks and pretend it is a movie or something. The plot of The Mysterious Elephant takes that notion and runs with it, with all of its characters being keenly aware of the fact that they are characters, and that their fates depend upon the twists and turns of the story in which they find themselves. Director Carolyn Klein reinforces this in her staging, as when Mr. Zeitner is added ceremoniously to the elephant contraption during the overture.

The Strange Tree Group is, hands down, my favorite company in Chicago right now. Go see their show. It runs at the Chopin Theatre until July 19th. You won’t see anything like it anywhere else.

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