An Instance of Immoderate High Jinks 

In which Emily Schwartz's new play goes overboard but stays afloat

THE MYSTERIOUS ELEPHANT AND THE TERRIBLE TRAGEDY OF THE UNLIKELY ADDINGTON TWINS* (*WHO KILL HIM) The Strange Tree Group

If Charles Ludlam and Shirley Jackson had a love child raised by feral bibliophiles, she'd probably be a lot like a character in an Emily Schwartz play. Schwartz, whose penchant for the sinister and the silly has found a comfortable home with her own Strange Tree Group, creates comedies that feel inspired equally by the gothic pastiches of Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company (particularly The Mystery of Irma Vep) and Jackson's view of the world as a place where casual cruelty and menace are the norm. The first Schwartz play I saw, a 2004 production of The Dastardly Ficus and Other Comedic Tales of Woe and Misery—about a pair of dotty sisters and their bizarre obsessions, including the younger girl's passionate attachment to a disembodied head found floating in a lake—felt very much like a fun-house mirror version of Jackson's tale of doomed siblings, We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Comparisons to Edward Gorey also inevitably crop up in discussions of Schwartz's work. The aura of macabre elegance is similar. But where Gorey maintained a light, even astringent touch, Schwartz is all about excess—for better and for worse. On the one hand, her casts have expanded to routinely include live musicians, as in last year's brilliant country-goth tuner, Mr. Spacky... The Man Who Was Continuously Followed by Wolves. On the other, she's also started spelling out things that might better remain unspoken. But for those who find too much of a good thing absolutely wonderful, her latest opus, The Mysterious Elephant and the Terrible Tragedy of the Unlikely Addington Twins* (*Who Kill Him) provides a banquet of toothsomely morbid wit to savor.

As you may have noticed, long titles are a Schwartz hallmark. Odd pairs are another, and here the odd pair is the titular twins: ice queen Esther (Carol Enoch) and neurasthenic Edward (Matthew Holzfeind). After a childhood spent in an abusive orphanage—where, as a song early in the first act explains, "she grew an ulcer as round as a coffee cup, he was the boy that would always get beaten up"—they've inherited the cobwebbed home of their late great-aunt Ernestine, which comes with a mechanical elephant that's been in the family for generations ("voiced" by accordionist Thomas Zeitner, who sits inside the wonderful contraption) and a Narrator (Weston Davis) who describes himself as "a seer of sees, a reader of reads, and a delectable devourer of devastatingly dismal diversions" (if you lack patience with alliterative lists, parts of this show will drive you bonkers) and plots the extinction of the Addington clan by editing their family history for maximum woe. The story hinges on whether or not the twins can outwit the Narrator, find the elephant's winding key before it runs down, and take control of the family story.

A gallery of talking family portraits takes center stage for too much of the first act as various Addingtons relate the awful demises devised for them by the Narrator (death by Atlantic salt-marsh serpent, bee stings, horse trampling). The songs interspersed here also feel less robust than those in Mr. Spacky, perhaps because the actor/musicians are trapped behind portrait frames. Though the Strange Tree players, under director Carolyn Klein, boast beefy comedic chops, their singing voices tend toward the reedy.

Schwartz overindulges in cutesy, self-reflexive commentary. At one point the twins drag out the moldering corpse of yet another ancestor—dim-witted ne'er-do-well Cristoff—to assist them in their quest. Upon securing his services, Edward proudly exclaims "We've managed a comic foil!" Fortunately Scott Cupper is up to the task, playing Cristoff's wide-eyed addlement with such bravura and tenderhearted skill that he nearly walks off with the show.

The second act adds yet another narrative strand to the story as the twins and Cristoff pursue the Narrator into a high-seas yarn featuring vampirish maidens who attempt to ensnare Edward's heart. There's an honorable literary tradition of tossing characters into alternate story lines, from Flann O'Brien's novel At Swim-Two-Birds to Woody Allen's short story The Kugelmass Episode. The problem here is that the story lines Schwartz has mashed up are far too similar in tone. The device works best when the mash-up involves the comic clash of dissonant universes.

Yet despite these structural flaws and the usual sight-line problems created by pillars in the Chopin Theatre's basement space, The Mysterious Elephant is delightful, primarily because its creators have a firm handle on the arch but accessible dialogue and a robust commitment to every bit of wordplay: for every line that induces a groan, there are at least three that elicit hearty laughs. Designwise, Galen Pejeau's jumble of set pieces and the ensemble-created costumes and props convey the sense that they opened a long-closed trunk in an attic and put on the show with the contents—and I mean that as a compliment.

Schwartz tends to write repeatedly for the same actors—Enoch and Cupper have been in all four of the Strange Tree plays I've seen—and that familiarity, coupled with Klein's well-paced direction, means that all the cast members appear to be rooted in the same world. They seem to understand that the studied artifice of Schwartz's plays can only work if they invest wholeheartedly in her ridiculous premises.

Enoch in particular has sewn up the market on buttoned-to-the-chin, gimlet-eyed pragmatists. But there are also moments here where she softens in the presence of Holzfeind's palpable vulnerability. Schwartz isn't afraid to open a vein of sentimentality late in the show, which may be the most significant way in which her work differs from Gorey's determined nihilism.

So far, I've walked out of every Strange Tree show I've seen with the impression that Schwartz and her cohorts want to entertain their audience as much as they want to please themselves. And they do it without pandering to topicality or straining for faux-edginess. I'd compare the best of Schwartz's Strange Tree work to the small masterpieces turned out in the early 1990s by Cardiff Giant—another company of whip-smart artists who embraced the ludicrous and the faintly menacing with generosity, heart, and panache.

The Mysterious Elephant isn't the best Schwartz play I've seen, and I think she would benefit from some ruthless editing. But smart, well-crafted, stylized comedy is devilishly difficult to pull off. It's a testament to Strange Tree that they continue to make it look so easy.v

Care to comment? Find this review at chicagoreader.com. And for more on Emily Schwartz, see the Theater section in this week's Best of Chicago pullout.

review

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Kerry Reid

Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
Hir Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Downstairs Theater
June 29
Performing Arts
Megastasis Athenaeum Theatre
July 16

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories

Follow Us

Sign up for newsletters »

 Early Warnings
 Food & Drink
 Reader Recommends
 Reader Events and Offers