The Half Brothers are a neo-bluegrass trio with deep roots in Seattle's fringe-theater scene. David Nixon (banjo), John Ackermann (mandolin and guitar), and Rick Miller (guitar and a sweet and slightly ragged voice that sounds like the kind of angel who'd be singing backup for Townes Van Zandt in heaven) have loaned their talents to Annex Theater, On the Boards, and the performance art/rock band "Awesome," to name a few. (Full disclosure: Miller recently began working in The Stranger's tech department.)
The Half Brothers Brand Old-Time Variety Show is the Brothers' first full-length theater project, which begins as a mild parody of old-fashioned, advertiser-sponsored radio shows. The Brothers sing gee-whiz bluegrass throwbacks ("Corn Train," for example, concerns a hungry person fantasizing about a train full of corn), and their old-timey, baritone-and-brilliantine radio host (Tim Moore) reads off ads for biscuit mix, hangover cures, and other self-consciously podunk products. During these early segments, actor Troy Mink—best known in Seattle for his Southern-drag matron character Carlotta—plays a befuddled and increasingly irritated housewife ineptly trying to cook the Half Brothers' recipes, turning her corner of the stage into a gloppy, doughy mess.
But things get more interesting as the show progresses. The announcer cheerfully reads off increasingly sinister corporate sponsors and slogans—"Where results are only part of our business"—and the songs take a hard left turn from goofball throwbacks to addressing harrowing contemporary subjects. Nixon and his banjo, for example, lead a haunting bluegrass ballad about home ownership: "I've never felt more American than when my debt keeps me up at night... It's too late for my ship, I just hope that this shit doesn't stick to my son/Will he even want college when honestly paying off loans might never get done?" Nixon and the rest of the cast come alive—with a sharp, mournful, Chaplin-esque comedy—when they quit making fun of old-timey clichés and start wrestling with what actually scares them.