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: Inherit the Whole (Mortar Theatre Company)

Moving play accentuated by tour de force performances

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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
  
  

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