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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