The Mysterious Elephant
The Strange Tree Group

Written by Emily Schwartz, 2008 Best Playwright - Chicago Reader Staff Choice

From the wickedly whimsical imagination of Emily Schwartz comes the tale of the horribly unlucky Addington twins.

06/18/08 - 07/19/08

Preview 6/18; Thu-Sat 8p; Sun 2p

Written by Emily Schwartz, 2008 Best Playwright - Chicago Reader Staff Choice

Strange Tree’s “Elephant” artfully topples easy metaphors - Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune 6/27/08

The elephant in the room dominating Emily Schwartz's latest play is no metaphor but an actual elephant (OK, mechanical elephant)—and if that doesn't tell you something about this playwright's wry sense of humor, may I suggest a quick scan of the title.

An ingenious mash-up of literary and visual styles, Strange Tree Group's "The Mysterious Elephant and the Terrible Tragedy of the Unlikely Addington Twins (*Who Kill Him)," is Charles Dickens somehow crossed with Tim Burton and Monty Python—at once lowbrow and highbrow and no-brow at all. Imagine a world of black ankle boots and striped stockings, of self-reflexive meta-theatrics, Edwardian kitsch and a winking spirit that is ridiculous and ironic yet deeply, deeply felt.

Though one of the city's newer companies, Strange Tree has already established its eccentric bona fides. My colleague Kerry Reid named Schwartz's previous effort, "Mr. Spacky ... The Man Who Was Continuously Followed by Wolves," to our Best of Fringe list in '07, and I was a big fan of her mini-play about cowboys in this year's Sketchbook festival. Both the playwright and this troupe are worth checking out.

The elephant lurking in Schwartz's current piece is not a character so much as an ungainly curiosity passed down through generations like an overgrown trinket turned plot device. He is the inheritance of the orphaned Addington twins—Esther (spunky Carol Enoch) and Edward (Matt Holzfeind, sweet and doltish). They also become owners of a large house occupied by a narrator hell bent on twisting their fates.

The twins are destined for tragedy unless they can hijack the narrator (a humorously pompous Weston Davis) and alter their story with the help of some dead relatives who spring to life from portraits hanging on the wall (an idea that would seem more inspired had the same premise not already appeared in "13 Dead Husbands," an equally wacked-out show from Sansculottes Theater in March).

An agreeably upbeat and deranged sensibility dominates the play, and I would draw particular attention to Scott Cupper's corpse, who emerges from a trunk like a drunken party guest who spent the night. Bemused and soft-spoken and walking like the Scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz," Cupper's is an inspired performance. At one point his arm falls off. "My arm fell off," he says gently. "My God, he's an idiot," Esther sighs.

For all its anarchic, free-wheeling giddiness, the production is held back by some hinky issues with the staging. Director Carolyn Klein is a terrific interpreter of the Schwartz aesthetic, but she and set designer Galen Pejeau do not address the sight line problems that exist thanks to the inelegantly placed columns in the Chopin Theatre's basement. A number of seats in the setup plainly have obscured views, and it is unreasonable to expect audiences to tolerate this sort of thing. "The Mysterious Elephant" deserves to be seen—from any seat in the house.

Charming 'Elephant' better as small-scale production - Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun Times 6/24/08

In recent seasons, Emily Schwartz has contributed a number of exceedingly quirky, highly enjoyable short pieces to Collaboraction's Sketchbook festival, including this year's inspired sketch about some crusty old cowboys who lasso in a female chamber music ensemble to celebrate a pal's birthday.

But the same sensibility that can charm in a short piece can grow excruciatingly tiresome in a full-length play. And so it does in "The Mysterious Elephant (and the Terrible Tragedy of the Unlikely Addington Twins)." Schwartz's mock-Edwardian "musikal comedie" is now receiving a visually elaborate but impossibly precious production by her own company, the Strange Tree Group, under the meticulous direction of Carolyn Klein.

The show has the look of an Edward Gorey picture book (but colorized) and the mind-set of Pirandello (think "Six Characters in Search of an Actor," but alter the title to read "Two Characters in Rebellion Against Their Author"). It sounds clever enough -- and you can only admire the elaborate artfulness of the show's design, its spirited cast of 13 and the musical interludes (a nod to Gilbert & Sullivan) played and sung by the actors. But "The Mysterious Elephant" clocks in at more than two hours, which is a solid 90 minutes beyond sustainability.

The story focuses on Esther Addington (Carol Enoch) and her twin brother Edward (Matt Holzfeind) -- characters in a long and mostly tragic family saga who have spent their formative years in an orphanage. Now, after inheriting a gloomy family mansion, Emily decides she is going to fight the tyranny of the cobweb-infested Narrator (a comically drowsy Weston Davis) who is weaving her tragic fate. In fact, she is hellbent on creating a happy ending for herself and her romance-starved brother. The twins' various ancestors (who appear "live" in gilded picture frames) have something to say about all this. And then there is the matter of finding the key that will help restore "life" to the giant mechanical elephant that stands in the living room.

Whimsical? To a fault. Compelling? Hardly. Sustainable? By no means.

Pale and slender, Enoch and Holzfeind nail their characters both physically and vocally. The rest of the tight-knit ensemble -- Elizabeth Bagby, Delia Baseman, Scott Cupper, Stephen Dale, Jenifer Henry, Bob Kruse, Jennifer Marschand, Kate Nawrocki, Thomas Zeitner and Tom Mackey (the latter also wrote the stylish arrangements for Schwartz's songs, with Jackie Jasperson serving as musical director) -- displays panache. And the show's ingenious, exquisitely tattered design is its most alluring aspect -- from Galen Pejeau's sets (lit by Julian Pike) that might have been lifted out of Miss Haversham's attic to the marvelous costumes and props (the joint effort by Schwartz, Baseman, Marschand, Nawrocki and Kara Klein). It all suggests a great deal of love, effort and enthusiasm. But it has been lavished on an excess of trivia.

Dark humor rides in on wild 'Elephant' - Mary Houlihan, Chicago Sun Times 6/13/08

Anyone who caught Collaboraction's current Sketchbook festival was wowed by "Cowboy Birthday Party," Emily Schwartz's hilarious vision of a birthday celebration at home on the range.

Fans of the four-year-old Strange Tree Group, where Schwartz is artistic director, already know she has an imagination that never stops ticking. There, her slightly off-kilter creations have included "The Dastardly Ficus and Other Comedic Tales of Woe and Misery," "Mr. Spacky ... The Man Who Was Continuously Followed by Wolves" and "Ghost Stories II: Crucible the Musible!"

Schwartz's newest wickedly whimsical piece for Strange Tree is "The Mysterious Elephant (And the Terrible Tragedy of the Unlikely Addington Twins)." The show, which is family friendly, is filled with her odd dark humor and many strange, dark surprises.

"I grew up reading Edward Gorey and Charles Addams alongside Little House on the Prairie and Little Women," Schwartz, 28, said. "I guess that combination encouraged me to develop this strange Midwestern gothic sensibility."

"The Mysterious Elephant" tells the story of Esther and Edward Addington (Carol Enoch and Matthew Holzfeind), teenage twins who are left to their own devices at an orphanage. When they inherit the family house, hopes are that things will begin to turn for the better in their lives. But when the twins realize the story's narrator has other plans for them, they endeavor to extricate themselves from the unfortunate happenings. Along the way, they empathize with unusual puppets, confront weapon-wielding maidens and rescue a magical, mechanical elephant.

Schwartz refers to the show, which began as a commission for Writers' Theatre, as an "odd, gothic, macabre comedy."

"Originally, it started out as a children's show, but that didn't pan out," she said. "I made it a little darker for Strange Tree but my goal is to always make our work accessible to everyone with an imagination, whether you are 8 or 80."

And Strange Tree wants the audience to be entertained from the moment they enter the theater, where the set, a Victorian parlor, will add to the heightened reality of the experience and a pre-performance puppet show will give a sneak peek into the characters. "You step into the story the minute you enter the theater," Schwartz said. "Our goal is to create worlds where anything is possible.

"We're a very creative group and feed off each other well. Growing older doesn't mean that we have to get boring; we're branching out and getting better."

Recommended - Kerry Reid, Chicago Reader 6/26/08 - 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.

TimeOut Chicago – Chris Piatt 6/19/08 - Emily Schwartz and Carolyn Klein are two of the loveliest young women I’ve met in Chicago theater—vibrant, articulate about their craft and classy regarding the messy enterprise of shoestring show biz. This wouldn’t be worth mentioning, except that based on the bloody, pitch-black plays their company Strange Tree Group produces, I was expecting to meet eyeliner-caked nihilists resembling Morticia Adams or, at the very least, Stevie Nicks. Instead, coming from their respective office jobs, Schwartz and Klein, both pert, professional, could pass for members of an Oprah-worshipping book club.

“Everybody asks me if my childhood was terrible,” playwright Schwartz says with an amusingly guilty smile. “But it really, really wasn’t.”

The small-town Indiana daughter of a cartoonist father and librarian mother, 28-year-old Schwartz writes deadpan comedies that can be quantified by their body counts just as easily as they can be qualified by their goth, bone-dry humor and sinister creepiness. In last summer’s Mr. Spacky…The Man Who Was Continuously Followed by Wolves, a wayward damsel is lured to a dust-bowl farmstead where young women are cannibalized (it was a musical comedy). In 2006’s Funeral Wedding, about the mysterious slayings of two young women at the hands of a sexual predator, much of the humor comes from the ghosts of the two murder-rape victims. And in last fall’s Crucible: The Musible!, a collaboration with the trapeze artists of Aloft Aerial Dance, Arthur Miller’s Salem witch hunts are set to ’70s stoner rock; the trial of Ron Schlacter (rhymes with John Proctor) is interrupted by the cotton-ball-wigged judge pounding his gavel to Santana’s “Evil Ways.”

Chock-full of cheeky Gen-Y references and warmly jaded Wonkette humor but gleefully obedient to the rules of populist Grand Guignol, Schwartz’s plays forge their own delightful (if admittedly minor) genre. Think of them as Jenny Deadfuls.

The unique feminist empowerment of Strange Tree Group comes in part from Schwartz’s bifurcated boogeyman-Pollyanna influences. “At one point [during childhood], the local librarian told me I couldn’t take out any more ghost stories because the other kids need to read them,” Schwartz says. (Schwartz’s college job would be in a dusty special-collections branch of her university library, which contained locks of Edgar Allan Poe’s hair.) But for all the ghastly literature the playwright consumed as a child—reviews of her work invariably draw comparisons to the pen-and-ink macabre of Edward Gorey—Schwartz was reading in equal measure Little books, as it were: Little House on the Prairie, Little Women and The Littles.

Her sunny-shady voice has quickly emerged as unmistakable, regularly sticking out in Collaboraction’s short-play fest Sketchbook and attracting like-minded collaborators—self-identified as “Trees”—to her company. “These are all simply people who are drawn to Emily’s work,” director Klein says of her fellow company members. Having recently gone nonprofit, and Jeff-eligible for the first time with the debut of The Mysterious Elephant, And the Terrible Tragedy of the Unlikely Addington Twins* (*Who Kill Him), Strange Tree so far has only produced Schwartz’s work (something de facto artistic director Schwartz says she hopes will change). For a woman who didn’t even really know she was a playwright until the end of college—where she met Klein, now 33, who was pursuing an acting master’s—that’s pretty significant.

“My only role in four years was carrying a tray and wearing a bustier,” Schwartz recalls of her undergraduate acting pursuit at Indiana University Bloomington. Frustrated by her inability to get cast in a 600-person theater department, Schwartz spent an hour scribbling a five-page play that would become her first fully produced Chicago work, The Dastardly Ficus. That 2004 production launched Strange Tree.

Monty Python, Mel Brooks and the films of Christopher Guest are all mentioned as major comedic inspirations by Schwartz and Klein, the director of both Mr. Spacky and Schwartz’s upcoming The Mysterious Elephant. With the exception of Carol Burnett—whom Klein admires largely because of the hallmark Burnett Show scenes with laughing actors (“Any moment where actors are about to break over something funny is magical”)—the two women cite male humor heroes.

The absurdist “dude” humor, though, is leavened by the Trees’ DIY aesthetic (many of the design elements are pulled from company members’ apartments), which gives the shows a homespun, even domestic appeal. “We don’t have a lace cravat?” Schwartz posits hypothetically. “I have these dish towels we can cut up.” Cutting up—both helpless victims and enthusiastic audiences—is fast becoming Strange Tree’s specialty.

Is that an Elephant in your pants, or? - Chicago Journal 6/18/08

Hooray! We have waited and waited and finally it's here! Tonight is the opening night for Strange Tree Group's The Mysterious Elephant and the Terrible Tragedy of the Unlikely Addington Twins (Who Kill Him) at Chopin Theater, 1543 Division St. ( Can't you just tell by the title that we are going to love it? We can. Exotic passion and murderous lust, just what our summer has been lacking so far. The play was written by Emily Schwartz, of course, who wrote last season's smash hit Mr. Spacky ... the Man Who Was Continuously Followed by Wolves, which also sounded extremely get-up-off-our-bums-and-go-see-worthy, although, sadly, that never actually happened.

This summer is a whole new ballgame, however, and we are determined to swish our backsides off to Chopin Theater to discover what exactly happened to the horribly unlucky Addington twins, whether or not they manage to triumph over their narrator and raise the dead, and whether or not a large mechanical elephant in mortal danger is cute. Furthermore, and we should have mentioned this at the start, we are promised weapon-wielding maidens, and weapon-wielding maidens just happen to be one category of humanity we simply can't resist. Needless to say, we're in a complete tizzy as to what to wear. We won't bore you with the details, but the overall dilemma is whether to go mechanical or horribly unlucky.

From the wickedly whimsical imagination of Emily Schwartz comes the tale of the horribly unlucky Addington twins and their quest to extract themselves from the tragic story in which they've been currently placed.

Throughout the evening Esther and Edward Addington endeavor to triump over their narrator, raise the dead, showcase a series of events through song, empathize with unusual puppets, confront weapon wielding maidens and rescue a rather large mechanical elephant from the jaws of certain doom.

Emily Schwartz

Carolyn Klein

Elizabeth Bagby,; Delia Baseman; Scott Cupper; Stephen Dale; Weston Davis; Carol Enoch; Jenifer Henry; Matt Holzfeind; Bob Kruse; Tom Mackey; Jennifer Marschand; Kate Nawrocki; and Thomas Zeitner

Producer - Max Wagner; Stage Manager - Amanda Dravecky-Kulczewski; Lighting Designer - Julian Pike; Set Designer - Galen Pejeau; Music Director - Jackie Jasperson; Costume Designer - Jeremy Floyd; Photography - Matthew Liang-Chaboud; and Managing Director- Christian Carranza

Tags: Theater, American, 2008