Review: Under America (Mortar Theatre Company)

Lack of focus unravels epic saga

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Mortar Theatre presents
   
Under America
  
Written by Jacob Juntunen
Directed by
Rached Edwards Harvith
at The
Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
through September 26th  |  tickets: $12-$20   |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Jacob Juntunen deserves some props for diving headfirst into territory many writers nowadays fear to tread—the world of epic theatre. Juntunen’s newest play for his Mortar Theatre cohorts, Under America, spans months of time and travels through a smorgasbord of locations, some realistic, some surreal. Clocking in at just under Under America 10 three hours, it’s safe to say the play tackles a lot. Unfortunately, the ambitious piece tries to knot together too many threads, and Mortar’s production teeters a bit too close to chaos.

Under America is mostly about the Cabrini-Green public housing development and one journalist’s (Stephanie Stroud) attempts to understand issues that belie so much poverty in this country. Her story is interwoven with the tale of a youth from Cabrini-Green (Jon Sharlow) finding himself awash in the judicial system. Through time spent in solitary confinement, he discovers a prison wardrobe-to-Narnia which transports him to a bizarre system of tunnels brimming with strange characters “under America.” We also get to see how Sam deals with the boy’s family as well as her lawyer girlfriend, disconnected mother, and right-leaning father, who also happens to be a politician. Juntunen sets out to tell a big story, and this one is gigantic.

The play unravels due to a lack of focus. Angels in America succeeds so well because all the stories plug into each other thematically. Here, it is less compelling. Some storylines could be tossed out completely without shattering the macrocosm; Sam’s struggle to come out of the closet to her parents comes to mind, or any of the scenes with Jackie (Jazmin Corona), a social worker who gives a handful of opinions on Sam’s relationship and the social health of the country at large. The weaker character relationships should be weeded. They provide some interesting nuances, but don’t have the life-or-death gravitas that the driving issues tap into to keep the audience interested. Basically, the stakes vary widely.

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For me, the most interesting section of the show was the dark, weird journey to the mythical belly of the American prison system. Michael, the young man, goes below, looking for his father through layers of hallucinations, doing the bidding of a cat-obsessed inmate and stoic warden, among others. The trip, which comprises most of the second act (of three), is unnerving, unpredictable, and fascinating. It was the tale I wanted to watch play out most of all.

For her part, director Rachel Edwards Harvith clicks with the script. Even with fistfuls of characters and plots, she never ignores a single one. Her dedication to the script  comes through in every scene. The waves of information could’ve been better shaped, though, and she should have picked certain ideas to really stick to the audience instead of letting them all surge over us.

Under America 07As a unit, the cast comes across as wooden. Some of the individual performances are magnetic, like Sharlow, Stroud, and Sentell Harper (who plays Michael’s brother). The group scenes ring hollow; the actors can’t keep their connection over the entire show. William J. Watt, however, deserves a special mention for his performance as Rob, Sam’s father. He gives charisma and caring to a character that could easily be stereotyped and set aside. He’s not the only talented one on-stage—there are some great moments dotting the production, but as a whole, the acting is inconsistent.

Let’s not forget that this is Mortar Theatre’s second production ever. They are a ballsy group of artists for sure. Even though Under America might get ensnared in its own web, there is a lot of talent and intelligence at work. They like to ask big questions and explore unique perspective—one hypothesis in the show links products manufactured by prisoners to concentration camps, for example. With some more generous use of the backspace button, Juntunen and company could easily hit gold with their upcoming season.

   
   
Rating: ★★
 
 

 

 

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REVIEW: Vanishing Points (Point of Contention Theatre)

A bleak, melancholic and beautiful vanishing point

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Point of Contention Theatre presents:

Vanishing Points

 

by Martin Jones
directed by Dan Foss
at Boho Theatre, 7016 N Glenwood
through March 20th  (more info)

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

When I entered the Boho Theatre to see Vanishing Points, there was music playing. It was the music of my generation. I recalled a world of wildly colorful polyester and music that exploded the mold of it’s own origins. Unaware, I was being drawn into the world of a normal family in Nebraska 1972 before the lights went down.

Point of Contention’s production of Vanishing Points by Martin Jones is a bracing and sometimes nightmarish ride through the psyche of those that survive horrific and seemingly meaningless violence. It is based on the true story of the Peak family of Grand Island, Nebraska of whom three members were murdered in their home before going to church. For anyone who has experienced the sudden loss of a family member, there are few ways to articulate what is left behind. That is what falls to the character of Beth played by Stacie Hauenstein. She is the prodigal daughter who returns from college with a long- haired boyfriend and no concrete plans. Her family wastes no time in expressing their disappointment.

This production is brilliant in the use of minimalism. The usual cyc wall backdrop is literally framed with impressionistic and stark projections hanging center stage. These are Beth’s memories as well as her present state of mind frozen in time and invaded by ghosts. The only other props are chairs and a stair railing. It is left to the cast to project the sense of everyday life and morals of the midwestern family and what happens when it is left behind.

Rick Levine and Annie Slivinski play the parents as salt of the earth, church- going folks. Their children say ‘yes sir’ and have toed the line until Beth comes home with Lenny played by Christopher Sanderson. Victoria Bucknell plays the role of kid sister Barbara with bratty perfection. This family has followed the rules and had full expectations of the American dream with a plant nursery business. The greenhouse is the rare solace in the drought stricken town for Beth. The last time she sees her father is at the greenhouse on what seems an ordinary day. The family leaves for church and she goes with Lenny on the back of his motorcycle for a trip down memory lane. The memories become endless and something from which Beth cannot escape.

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Actors Hauenstein and Sanderson play off of each other well. It is especially tense in the New York scene when Lenny grows tired of being supportive. His anger and weariness with Beth’s mourning is shocking and very effective. Ms. Hauenstein manages to pull off a midwestern stoicism without falling into the damsel in distress stereotype. Hers is a performance with a perfect balance of paranoia, fear, and dreams fraught with despair.

Kudos to Ms. Slivinski for her dual role as Beth’s mother Carolyn and Peg who runs an artists colony in the mountains. Slivinski is haunting as the ghost of the mother still sounding off in disappointment from beyond the grave. The same phrases repeat over and over but with subtly increasing intensity. Although there is no special effects makeup, the image of a woman with a bullet wound in her face is made clear as Carolyn menaces Beth long after the tragedy.

Victoria Bucknell provides much needed comic relief – also in a dual role as little sister Barbara and as hippie con artist Vicki. Her portrayal of Vicki was spot on and hilarious. Once again, very few props other than a folding chair but there is patchouli and chicanery quite ably inferred for those who can remember the early 70’s.

Morgan Manasa plays the role of the other surviving sister Fran who lives in Evanston with her husband and son. Somehow her father expected her to go away and ‘live her own life’. When she returns for the funeral, she is more detached and pulled by her own unhappy circumstances. There is no home to return to in Nebraska and like so many women, she has married her father in that husband Gary (Mark E. Penzien), lays guilt on her for pursuing something other than home and hearth. Ms. Manasa plays the role of Fran with a dark sadness and admirable restraint. (I have seen her in more manic comic roles-most notably “The Wonder: A Woman Keeps A Secret” also produced by Point of Contention. This role was a jarring contrast, which she played with deftness and subtlety.) She and Mr. Penzien are heartbreaking as they portray a couple whose casualties stem as much from lost dreams as the tragedies back home.

Mr. Sanderson plays a seriocomic dual role as Lenny and as Caz the mountain man who wrangles snakes. His casual approach to violence echoed what may have happened to her family – much more could have been made of this character’s connection with the killer in Beth’s imagination. . What is called shocking by the media and people ensconced in normalcy is everyday stuff to those of a more atavistic nature.

A minus for the direction is that the dual role of Rick Levine as father Walter and Uncle Cliff is too much of a throwaway. Mr. Levine is good as the father but that is undercut by an almost identical performance as Cliff. It is made obvious that their lives followed an expectation of conformity however; the characters should have been more delineated.

This is difficult and tense material that Chicago theatre veteran Dan Foss has chosen to adroitly direct. The seamless action is wonderfully enhanced by the stark musical score by Peter Andriadis, with echoes of Phillip Glass if he had scored for Ingmar Bergman. Applause goes to costumer Erica Hohn who dressed the characters in wonderfully authentic period clothes. The bright colors and whimsical patterns makes the tragedy of the Peak family hit close to home. It’s as if the audience is looking at an old photo album of memories frozen in time – hopeful, but with a touch of rebellion.

As the play ended, I had a knot in my stomach. And when the lights came up, as the soundtrack of my childhood was playing on the speakers again, the knot in my stomach tightened even more, a combination of nostalgia and loss.

Vanishing Points is a very effective reminder of how people can be either consumed or numbed by tragedy. Was it really a shock that this seemingly random crime happened? Have we become inured to violence and to the dark side of humanity? Vanishing Points is a haunting remembrance of the connection that we all share.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

“Vanishing Points” runs through March 20th at the Boho Theatre @ Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood. Tickets can be purchased through BrownPaperTickets.com or by calling 312-326-3631.