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: EP Theatre’s “Baal”

EP’s “Baal” Far from Ballsy

 

EP Theatre presents:

Baal
by Bertolt Brecht
co-directed by AJ Ware and Hunter Kennedy
1820 S. Halsted (map)
thru October 3rd (tickets)

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Because it is the first play written by Bertolt Brecht, arguably the most important theatre theorist of the 20th Century, Baal is a fascinating work. The sprawling drama was written in 1918, before Brecht nailed down the Epic theatre style which would become his trademark. Glimmers of Brecht’s later techniques can still be found, though, such as the use of song and direct address. EP Theatre’s current production, billed as their biggest show to date, features live music baalaccompaniment by the band The Loneliest Monk. Although the production values of this Baal can be pretty ingenious, it lacks clarity and comes across as sloppy and confusing.

There is a lot of love for Brecht’s first work right now, with not one but two full productions happening this season (TUTA is also producing the play next May). Now Baal is an interesting little play for studying the writer’s development, but Brecht’s later masterpieces totally overshadow his debut in terms of quality. I wondered why any company would select it over his later works, but I was reminded how devastating and resonant the story can be. Drawing on Romantic period themes, the play follows a young, self-destructive poet with an insatiable appetite for liquor, sex, and verse. Desensitized to the world, Baal leaves shattered hearts and lives in his wake.

Co-directors AJ Ware and Hunter Kennedy’s production is so muddled; however, the full potential impact of the play is lost. Most of the locations or spans of time are never defined. This makes the action of story and relationships of the characters hard to piece together. There’s also a diverse collection of tertiary characters that are double-cast, but these are also ill-defined. The narrative in general in jumbled and the themes, characters, and emotional effect are disordered.

EP-theater-logo Even though Baal was written before the Brechtian style became the Brechtian style, there are still opportunities to use his powerful methods. Brecht himself retooled the play in 1926 to more closely fit his tastes. I was perplexed by the fact that EP’s production seems to shy away from embracing Brechtian techniques when they can be such a fun challenge for a smaller company. The live musicians are a start, especially when they occasionally interact with the actors. But there isn’t much of an attempt to play around with the audience; it feels like we’re watching a realistic play with some poetry tossed into the dialogue.

The performances might be to blame here, many being way more moody than cynically detached. Craig Cunningham was able to encapsulate the moroseness and aloofness of Baal, along with some of the humor (like when he’s playing with a fresh corpse). Shawn Pfautsch’s Ekart, Baal’s slightly more aware best friend, refreshingly punched up the poetry of the script. However, I’m pretty sure Pfautsch and Cunningham were secretly competing for wobbliest walk and seeing who could get closest to the other. The best performance in the production, hands down, is Gus Menary as Johannes. The part is tiny, but Menary’s portrayal was disturbingly underplayed, in particular when he describes how the body of his dead sister must look after years of floating in a river.

David Beaupre’s drab set design allowed the actors to explore different levels and could be transformed into a myriad of locales. With all of the possibilities the set opened up, it feels as if the set wasn’t fully utilized by the directors. The lighting was possibly the worst lighting design I’ve ever seen, sometimes highlighting pointless sections of wall and other times not providing enough visibility to see the actors. The Loneliest Monk is a saving grace of this production, though, providing complex and haunting ambiance.

The live music along with the actors’ obvious respect for Brecht’s evocative poetry makes the production acceptable. With more attention to story and technique, though, EP’s “biggest production to date” could’ve been destructive.

Rating: ««