Review: I Am Montana (Mortar Theatre Company)

  
  

Despite shinging moments, pertinent story blunted by hazy message

  
  

Derek Garza as Ebenn in Mortar Theatre Company's 'I Am Montana'. Photo credit: TCMcG Photography.

   
Mortar Theatre Company presents
  
I Am Montana
  
Written by Samuel D. Hunter
Directed by Rachel Edwards Harvith
at Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
through May 1  |  tickets: $15-$20   |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Now in their sophomore season, Mortar Theatre Company is obviously drawn to new work that digs into quagmires of social ills, usually presented in an epic, sprawling fashion. Last year’s Under America (our review), for example, presented a complex, multi-tiered tale about the now demolished Cabrini Greene housing projects along with a Dante-esque trip through the American prison system.

Josh Nordmark (Dirk), Derek Garza (Ebenn), and Sentell Harper (Tommy) in Mortar Theatre Company's 'I Am Montana'. Photo credit: TCMcG PhotographyTheir latest project, the Midwest premier of I Am Montana by Samuel D. Hunter, takes aim at big box retailers and how they treat their labor. They even have “minimum wage” Thursdays, where admission equals the running time times the national minimum wage ($7.25, although it’s $8.25 in Illinois). The treatment of non-union unskilled labor is often ignored in the arts, but it’s an important issue that involves millions of Americans. The subject seems dry on paper, but director Rachel Edwards Harvith and her cast tell an engaging, layered web of a story. Unfortunately, Harvith and Hunter’s efforts are blunted by an inability to articulate what the piece wants to be. I Am Montana feels unfinished, delivering a collection of loosely-tied ideas and not-quite-cooked characters. Hunter can’t decide whether the play is a hard-hitting human drama or a darkly surrealistic take on modern Americana.

Hunter focuses his play around the tribulations of Eben (Derek Garza), a Montana boy who left to fight in the Israeli army. Now mentally disturbed, he punches a clock at Valumart, a Wal-Mart style retailer with thousands of locations dotting the new American landscape. We watch his winding journey to a Valumart convention, where he’s been selected to speak about the future of business. He’s joined by his childhood friend, the fabulous Tommy (Sentell Harper), and a meth head/obsessive personality, Dirk (Josh Nordmark). The trio drive, sleep, fight, and eat cheap meals on Valumart’s tab. We learn that Eben, who slowly reveals the horrors he went through in the army, obviously has far more sinister plans for the convention than a speech on retail.

Part of the problem is that Hunter leaves plenty of questions with unsatisfying answers. How and why did some dude from small-town Montana end up fighting in the Middle East, and then end up back home working an entry level position? A handgun is stolen from a Valumart, but why are there are no repercussions? And why did Eben’s boss choose three of the least-suited employees to talk to the big boys about profits and expansion—subjects Dirk, Eben, and Tommy care very little for? And a lot of the twists can be spotted a mile away—especially Eben’s evil scheme and his darkest war secret (it’s grotesque, but predictable).

     
Sentell Harper (Tommy) and Derek Garza (Ebenn) in Mortar Theatre Company's 'I Am Montant'. Photo credit: TCMcG Photography Derek Garza (Ebenn) and Josh Nordmark (Dirk) in Mortar Theatre Company's 'I Am Montan'. Photo credit: TCMcG Photography
Derek Garza (Ebenn) in Mortar Theatre Company's 'I Am Montana'. Photo credit: TCMcG Photography Derek Garza (Ebenn) and Nicholas Roy Caesar (Valupig) in Mortar Theatre Company's 'I Am Montana'. Photo credit: TCMcG Photography

The play shines brightest when you discover reality is unraveling. Eben tells macabre anecdotes about Valumart’s shoppers and their vicious, oft fatal quests to save a few bucks. Tommy discusses invading an unfamiliar Valumart, where he threw coffee around the break room and “pissed on an assistant manager.” It’s fun to watch the two wreak havoc at a store and there not be any consequences. Hunter drives into some bizarre territory, but it doesn’t start peeking out until the second half of the play. (I bet the play would work better if the absurdity was dialed up all the way, all the time.)

Garza, Harper, and Nordmark have a great chemistry throughout the production, each knowing how to alternatively console and berate the others. Nicholas Roy Caesar also does fine puppet work as Valupig, Valumart’s porcine mascot. Harper obviously has a stronger connection to the giddy Tommy than to the hardened convicts that filled Under America. The timing and vulnerability of the cast are what really bring the production home.

I caught myself wondering if Eben, Dirk, and Tommy would ever go to the theatre. If they did, I bet they would enjoy the screwed-up moments of I Am Montana, and they would probably pine for more weirdness over social commentary.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Nicholas Roy Caesar (Valupig) and Derek Garza (Ebenn) in Mortar Theatre Company's 'I Am Montana'. Photo credit: TCMcG Photography

I Am Montana continues through May 1st at the Athenaeum Theatre, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $18-$20, and can be purchased online.  For more info, visit mortartheatrecompany.org or download the program.

 

All photos by TCMcG Photography

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Review: The Literati (Chicago dell’Arte)

  
  

Literary lovefest veers off book

   
 

Ned Record, Derek Jarvis and Nick Freed in 'The Literati', presented by Chicago dell'Arte.

  
Chicago dell’Arte presents
  
The Literati
  
by Ned Record, Derek Jarvis and Nick Freed
at the Athemaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
thru April 17  | 
tickets: $20  |  more info  

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

When I first reviewed Chicago dell’Arte’s The Literati, the highly conceptual and gimmick-laced show had a unique charm. It was in a cramped block box at the RBP Rorschach Theatre. The low-budget production was crafty out of necessity, using a ragtag assortment of pillows as chairs and doubling the entryway as a backstage. The small space and the DIY feel added to the production’s high energy and off-kilter Ned Record, Derek Jarvis and Nick Freed in 'The Literati', presented by Chicago dell'Arte.aesthetic.

The remount of The Literati, which occupies a space at the Athenaeum Theatre, has sacrificed some of this charm in exchange for a professional lighting system, permanent seating and a larger space that serves to sap some of the performers’ manic energy. (To the company’s credit, the performance I saw was sparsely attended, which I’m certain adversely affected the overall mood of the show.)

The production rests on a fairly simple device. The three company members, Derek Jarvis, Nick Freed and Ned Record, wheel out a bulletin board containing five columns of literary categories. Below each header are five classic titles, including such works as Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”, Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” and Voltaire’s “Candide. Audience members are chosen at random to roll an oversized die, which then denotes which texts will get the Chicago dell’Arte treatment.

Said treatment is a dramatic and concise retelling of the tale with liberal reinterpretation. For example, in the performance I saw, “Great Expectations” was performed with Estella as an android, “Little Women” co-starred a sock puppet and “Beowulf” was done in the style of a live-action role-playing game. Yes, it was a total nerdgasm.

And that’s definitely The Literati‘s target audience—brainy nerds. Although you don’t need to be familiar with all the works being reproduced, it certainly helps heighten the level of appreciation if you do. And the humor in general is one that would tickle The Simpson‘s Comic Book Guy’s funny bone. How many people will really appreciate the narrator announcing Beowulf’s hit-point count? I by no means am making a point that this brand of humor is inferior. It’s just a niche, and those that enjoy this brand of shtick will get their share of laughs.

Ned Record, Derek Jarvis and Nick Freed in 'The Literati', presented by Chicago dell'Arte.And although the larger space does make it more difficult to milk the comedy, what hurts the show more is the constant asides that interrupt the action of the stories. The three performers play caricatures of themselves throughout the production. For example, even when Jarvis is playing Frankenstein’s monster, he’s the character of Jarvis playing Frankenstein’s monster. That’s an interesting meta device, but when the performers constantly break fictional literary characters to add quips as their caricature selves, it drags the momentum of the piece down. After a while, it becomes less a lesson in literature and more one in tedium.

This show has a lot of heart and a lot of charm. And because it’s highly unlikely two performances will be identical, it’s worth seeing multiple times. But to keep audiences coming back, I suggest that Chicago dell’Arte concentrate more on the humor derived from the source material rather than from the banter between the performers.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Ned Record, Derek Jarvis and Nick Freed in 'The Literati', presented by Chicago dell'Arte.

  
   

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Review: Terre Haute (Black Elephant Theatre)

  
  

Two extremes create their own middle

  
  

Cole Simon as 'Harrison' in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.

  
Black Elephant Theatre presents
  
Terre Haute
  
Written by Edmund White
Directed by Michael Rashid
at Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
through April 10  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

What if brilliant gadfly Gore Vidal (here called “James”) and mass murdering domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh (“Harrison”) had actually met, instead of simply corresponding with each as happened? The very speculative results are on harsh display for 90 minutes, the setting a basically bare stage that suggests the prison contact area where they might have met. It’s neutral ground between opposites that attract in this Chicago premiere of a very telling, if imaginary, encounter between American poles.

Danne W. Taylor as 'James Brevoort' in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.71 and suffering from osteosclerosis as he hobbles on a cane with characteristic dignity, Vidal, radical politico and openly, if not happily, gay (a richly nuanced Danne W. Taylor), is drawn to his seeming nemesis (despite being repelled by all of Indiana).

(It’s much as Truman Capote was to the multiple murderer Perry Smith or straight Norman Mailer was to killer Gary Gilmore. All three great writers seemed to shadow the executions of their subjects, though, unlike vultures, their interest was in how they faced the end, not the aftermath.)

28, unrepentant, and possibly a virgin, Cole Simon’s macho McVeigh is attractive and forbidding enough to make daredevil Vidal want to kiss him or at least touch his prison-toned chest. (So it goes at least in this fictionalized treatment by Edmund White.) Showing his usual perverse sympathy with the devil, Vidal understands that the sociopathic white supremacist/survivalist was in fact avenging an equally gratuitous slaughter of scores of supposedly innocent citizens at Ruby Ridge and Waco (exactly three years before McVeigh’s 1995 bombing).

They both find common ground in their distrust of the government and the elites who own it. Vidal fears that the American republic is endangered by the American empire and the “constant warfare” by which the populace is distracted from being raped by the rich. McVeigh dreads a “New World Order” in which the U.N. will invade America and give it up to its Jewish “owners” while enslaving the “true” citizens, deprived of guns with which to fight back. For him no sacrifice is too great to thwart the coup, including losing his life to a lethal injection. He calls it a “state-assisted suicide.”

But, as Vidal tapes McVeigh’s halting confessional, it’s clear what really unites them—what Vidal calls “the American loneliness.” Though Vidal argues that life is sacred (even if he’s an unbeliever) and McVeigh dismisses the 19 children his 7,000 fertilizer bomb killed as “collateral damage,” they both agree on the alienation they feel from and for their native land. Both are veterans who distrust the U.S. military and the constant surveillance of civilian authorities. Both are nearing death: Vidal loves life enough to fear it but, like a true jihadist, McVeigh has already crossed to the dark side: The execution will only finish the journey. Most interestingly, McVeigh reminds Vidal of his first lover Bud, who was equally eager to find easy answers and immediate gratification.

     
Cole Simon as 'Harrison' in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White. Danne W. Taylor as 'James Brevoort' in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.
Danne W. Taylor as James Brevoort and Cole Simon as Harrison in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.  Danne W. Taylor as 'James Brevoort' in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.

Director Michael Rashid does a fine job of using body language and the caged pacing of inmate and interviewer to reveal the intricate psychodynamics that connect and repel them. (They have a ferocious donnybrook that oddly resembles a lover’s quarrel.) When Gore finally mentions the broken bodies of the many victims, McVeigh almost sees them for the first time, far more real than any abstraction of anti-government revenge could ever be.

It’s not exactly a meeting of minds. McVeigh is too much the militia-minded thug of action to be any more than a nightmare clad in flesh. But, despite its highly imaginative pretend-encounter, Terre Haute goes far to explaining how much American extremes—Vidal’s kneejerk cynicism about American ideals and McVeigh’s lethal paranoia and self-pity—seem to deserve each other. Most of us are happy enough to live in between.

     
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Danne W. Taylor as James Brevoort and Cole Simon as Harrison in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.

Terre Haute runs through April 10th, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $20, and are available online or by calling 800-982-2787. Terre Haute runs 80-minute with no intermission.

     
     

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REVIEW: The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Shattered Globe)

     
     

Shattered Globe is back, better than ever

     
     

Linda Reiter (Mag) and Eileen Niccolai (Maureen) star in Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane.  Photo Credit: Kevin Viol

      
Shattered Globe Theatre presents
   
The Beauty Queen of Leenane
  
Written by Martin McDonagh
Directed by
Steve Scott
at the
Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
through Feb 27  | 
tickets: $25 – $32  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

In The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Martin McDonagh has crafted one of drama’s greatest monster mothers, a matriarch of such suffocating dominance and staggering selfishness that she almost makes Medea look like June Cleaver. At least Medea had decency to put her children out of their misery at a fairly young age. Mag Folan, by contrast, seems to live solely to make her grown daughter Maureen’s life as close to hell on earth as one can get. It’s no wonder things get blisteringly, destructively hot in the Folan kitchen by the shocking finale of McDonagh’s tragic-comedy.

With a pair of intensely complex roles for women whose ingénue days are well behind them, The Beauty Queen of Leenane is an excellent vehicle to usher in the rebirth of Shattered Globe to the Chicago theater scene. One of the most dismaying arts stories of 2010 came with the announcement that the off-Loop powerhouse was disbanding. The dissolution surely wasn’t for lack of talent – with shows including Requiem for a Heavyweight (our review ★★★★) and Suddenly Last Summer (review ★★★★) and Days of Wine and Roses, the company consistently delivered dramatic riches.

Joseph Wiens (Pato) and Eileen Niccolai (Maureen) star in Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Photo Credit: Kevin ViolMany of Shattered Globe’s best productions were anchored by the team of Linda Reiter and Eileen Niccolai, whose reunion as (respectively) mother Mag and daughter Maureen is reason for a bit of post-holiday rejoicing.

As stories of survival and sanity go, Beauty Queen’s a corker. And just when you think McDonagh has shown the plot’s full hand, the tale takes a twist that’ll stand the hair on the back of your neck on end. In those final moments, key events are called into tantalizing question, and the foundation of what you thought to be true turns out to be no firmer than shifting quicksand.

Equally disconcerting is the sudden, scary revelation McDonagh implies about the stranglehold the twin hands of fate and genetics can have on society’s most economically and emotionally vulnerable. The rich and the strong may have the means to escape heredity and circumstance. The poor and the fragile get crushed by them.

Director Steve Scott keeps a nicely controlled rein on the storytelling here: Less is infinitely more as Niccolai’s Maureen simmers in a slow but inexorable burn toward an explosion of rage. Under the ruthlessly demanding edicts of her mother, Maureen moves with precise control but has the wild-eyed, feral look of a fox desperate enough to chew off its own leg to escape the trap it is entangled in. As Mag, Reiter scrunches her face into a permanent gargoyle grimace, making the character both monstrous and pathetic – and making Maureen’s plight all the more untenable. Something has to give between mother and daughter before the last scene, and so it does, with all the violence and horror one expects from a McDonagh play.

     
Joseph Wiens (Pato) and Linda Reiter (Mag) star in Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane.  Photo Credit: Kevin Viol. Linda Reiter (Mag) and Eileen Niccolai (Maureen) star in Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane.  Photo Credit: Kevin Viol

Of course, Beauty Queen wouldn’t be nearly as powerful if it was a relentless grimfest. There’s more than a little humor threaded through McDonagh’s text – although humor of the dangling gallows variety to be sure. The cast is mostly up to the demands of the script, from its bleakly absurdist lighter moments to the irrevocable tragedy of its darker ones.

As Pato, the loving young man who represents Maureen’s only chance of escape, Joseph Wiens provides the narrative’s tender moments, portraying just the sort of gentle, understated and stout-hearted hero one suspects could heal Maureen’s deepest wounds. As Pato’s brother, Kevin Viol was a bit too tightly wound at the production’s final preview. Hopefully, his exaggerated jitteriness will lessen as the run continues.

Here’s hoping that run is long and prosperous for Shattered Globe, and that many more SG seasons are in store.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Kevin Viol (Ray) and  Eileen Niccolai (Maureen) star in Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane running through February 27, 2011, at the Athenaeum Theatre, Studio 2, 2936 N. Southport in Chicago. Photo Credit: Roger Smart

     
     

REVIEW: Trans Form

   
  

At the heart of a hidden woman

     
     

Rebecca Kling - Trans Form - New Suit Theatre Company

   
New Suit Theatre presents
   
Trans Form
 
Written and Performed by Rebecca Kling
Directed by
Kate McGroarty and Kristin Idaszak
at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
through Dec 5  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Transgender people face the Herculean task of getting the world to perceive them as the gender they experience themselves to be when all physical characteristics say otherwise. If our culture simply allowed people to discover their gender expression, rather than expecting them to squeeze into one of two bifurcated gender molds, then gender would become just another aspect of personal expression and be allowed its evolution in the individual.

But we don’t live in that kind of world, do we?

Rebecca Kling’s one-woman show, Trans Form is decidedly, consciously intimate and low-key. It renders in minute detail the everyday ways in which transgender people can feel their personal authenticity subverted or denied. That Kling unsentimentally reflects on how she has denied herself in the past is one of the more intriguing and thoughtful elements of this one-act play, produced by New Suit Theatre and co-directed by Kristin Idaszak and Kate McGroarty.

Kling begins with childhood games in which she plays at being a girl but, essentially, her childhood and adolescence is lived as somebody else. Hair pulled back into a bun, in jeans and a dress shirt that covers but can’t conceal her breasts, Kling progresses to femininity as her tale unfolds across twenty years of living in a masculine body. Nothing other than a persistent desire to be a girl, a girl growing into womanhood, sustains her sense of self. But, terrifyingly, it’s a self that can just as easily desire to commit suicide, since what that self wants seems too impossible or too burdensome. Bound in the body of an adolescent boy, Rebecca emerges in Kling’s mind as an urgent, cajoling, even threatening alter ego.

So far as support from the outside is concerned, too much of it appears slight and ephemeral against the expectations that gender will eventually match the male body she was born into. Even basic sentences like, “I think I want to be a girl,” can give her parents too much hope, hope that their child will someday emerge “normal,” her gender non-conformity reduced to a harmless phase. Her therapists are either supportive but clueless or really clueless in subjecting her to arbitrary and meaningless tests. Dressing up for Halloween provides scant relief since, for all her efforts, she can’t even pass as female as well as her drag-attired gay college roommate.

Trans Form 4

Love provides Kling the impetus to change and take on the risks and difficulties of transitioning. Love from a woman, who accepts Kling’s identity as a woman, sparks her transformation. Here’s where Kling’s story becomes oddly truncated. In order to appeal to wider audiences and educate beyond the transgender community, Trans Form has to deliver some kind of basic “Transgender 101” talk. But it is the emotional process of transitioning that sustains audience interest. With Rasean Davonte Johnson’s projection design and Sarah Gilmore’s sound design, Kling dons a white doctor’s coat to handle this segment humorously, like the spoof on a black and white 1950’s Social Etiquette film. However, the segment also belies the trickiness of blending personal, lived experience with the medicalized constructions of transgender identity. We hear no further about the affair. It becomes sacrificed to the dry, wry and cerebral delivery of psychological definitions and medical jargon.

Likewise, this show still needs further development to sustain even theatricality in the telling of Kling’s story. Some moments are very effective—as when she demonstrates the unremitting requirement of daily hormone therapy. But other sections still require greater physicalization and translation into visual metaphor. Kling has enough emotional distance from her material to observe it with wry and reflective eye. That makes her point of view necessary on a subject that could easily degenerate into maudlin self-absorption. But the artist also needs to lay bare the heart with clarity and precision. An audience may be better informed about transgender experience at the end of Trans Form, but hitting all the emotional bull’s-eyes of transitioning will force them to feel it.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
   
   

Trans Form 3

      
     

Production Team:

Scenic Designer: Sally Weiss, Costume Designer: Kristen Ahern, Lighting Designer: Michael Warden, Sound Designer: Sarah Gilmore, Projection Designer: Rasean Davonte Johnson, Stage Mngr.: Lauren Lassus, Production Manager: Jordan Danz

     
     

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Review: Under America (Mortar Theatre Company)

Lack of focus unravels epic saga

  Under America 05

   
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.

Under America 0 Under America 02
Under America 11 Under America 03

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: Inherit the Whole (Mortar Theatre Company)

Moving play accentuated by tour de force performances

 Inherit-the-Whole004

   
Mortar Theatre Company presents
   
Inherit The Whole
  
written by Dana Lynn Formby
directed by
Jason Boat
at the
Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
through June 27th   |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Robin Sneed

Rarely have I cried at a theatre performance, but I did at the end of Inherit The Whole, produced by Mortar Theatre Company, directed by Jason Boat. In my many years of involvement in the theatre, I rarely go to after-parties, but this one I did, so I could stand for the actors.

Inherit-the-Whole005 Inherit the Whole, written by Dana Lynn Formby, winner of the 2009 Kennedy Center National 10-Minute Playwriting Award, brings a complex, moving, and raw account of a Vietnam Veteran, Doug, played to exquisite intensity by Derek Garza. The role of Doug as strung out vet is no mean feat to play, and Garza carries this through until the end with a consistency that is staggering. Doug is a man with a mission to dig and dig until he finds the truth, a wild card, a man near mental collapse. Garza plays this with grit. He carries on until the end, putting his energy into the long haul.

During the first act I was unsure the playwright would bring the characters to arc. The scene felt static and unresolved. But in the second act, the characters were collectively brought to such a high arc, I wept at the scene before me. This is rare writing, displaying impressive skill. The second act is so surprising in it’s follow through, it is more than worth sitting in a very warm theatre. This is the retelling of American history at it’s best.

Lisa, played by Stephanie Stroud, is a tour de force. Beginning as the middle-of-nowhere mother figure, we see this woman take the stage by force of a gun. The use of guns in this play is powerful. I cannot remember ever seeing a play in which real guns were used as props. This is a story moved by violence and war, brought home, to a property under siege by greedy relatives. This is the story of a man who has served, and cannot escape his past. He refuses to let go, and we feel that pain every step of the way.

Inherit-the-Whole003Sarah Tode is the interfering Kalann, a woman given to a shallow and narrow view of the world. This is a beautiful actress willing to play the cad, and she does so without remorse nor bravado – a subtle performance, callous, and unapologetic.

Paul, played by Christopher Jon Martin, is the stunning center of the piece. Imagine my surprise to learn he is just thirty-nine years old, while so convincingly playing the part of a man in his sixties. The patriarch of this unraveled family, Martin takes the stage with a force that is palpable. This actor represents the very magic that is theatre. In fact, he looked thinner when I met him after the show, than he looked on stage. That is called acting.

The design of the show is uneven:

The lighting, by Camden Peterson, is too hot for this piece, and does not display the nuance and movement necessary to make the play sing – for this show’s lighting, then, less definitely is more. This intense drama needs shade and the most careful touch. The Inherit-the-Whole002lights were simply too crass and bright and at times distracted from the action.

Music is non-existent. A soundtrack is needed here. There is much music from the sixties to use as a guidepost, and a more robust sound-design would add hugely to the impact of this piece.

The scenic design by Eric Broadwater is outrageous.  No detail is left out.  It’s nearly guerilla theatre in the sense that it becomes a character in the play. There is no escaping this environment. From the dirt, to the papers, to every small imagining, this is scenic design at it’s best. Small lamps, paintings, shelves, chairs, every part of this design is flawless. Absolutely nothing is left untold, reminding me of a Hitchcock film.

Mortar Theatre is the brainchild of Jacob Juntunen, Managing Director, and with this production of Inherit The Whole, he is bringing a striking new voice to theatre in Chicago. I got a chance to chat with him after the show, and he is direct, political only in the sense of history, and does not wish to bring confrontation, but release from our American landscape, our nightmares, our misery.

This is solemn theatre; not for those who wish to leave the venue singing a song. This is theatre for those who want to leave the theatre changed and moved. Inherit The Whole will give that to you; dress lightly, and bring a cold beverage; you are in for a hot ride.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Inherit-the-Whole006

 

 

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