Mortar Theatre presents
At Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport
Written by Jacob Juntunen
Directed by Rachel Edwards Harvith
Thru September 26th
Running time: Two hours and forty minutes includes two 10-minute intermissions
Reviewed by Katy Walsh
Robbed at knife point, raped in a tunnel, surrounded by cats: What’s real? And what’s a horrible hallucination conjured up from solitary confinement or Xanax? Mortar Theatre presents the world premiere of UNDER AMERICA. A reporter moves into a Chicago housing project to write an expose. A young Cabrini Green resident is arrested for selling drugs. UNDER AMERICA could be a black/white face-off between these two characters. Graying the story are family members with their own versions of reality. A congressman angles his next campaign. A grandma protects her family’s image. A brother escapes through work. A mother self medicates. WITHIN the intersection of these families is real worlds colliding for a gritty tale of classism. ON top of this story, Playwright Jacob Juntunen adds in prison reform, sexual orientation, conflict mediation, and cat rights. UNDER AMERICA is IN range to hit the point. Multiple tunnels BELOW the surface send UNDER AMERICA OVER the target.
Directed by Rachel Edwards Harvith, the ensemble is ON! The Cabrini Green clan are exceptional stand-outs. Deanna K. Reed (Dorothy) is the sassy matriarch controlling the story with ‘don’t come here and judge us.’ Her no-nonsense attitude elicits the comic relief in the intense narration. Jon Sharlow (Michael) is the chip-on-the-shoulder punk. He delivers a CTA-inspired pick-up monologue to an audience member. It’s so authentic, she giggles and blushes. In a broad range of characters, Sentell Harper goes from earnest employee to yarn-dangling cat man to angry rapist with a flourished demeanor. Stephanie Stroud (Sam) is the over-zealous reporter seeking her father’s approval. Stroud’s portrayal is tunneled as a wide-eyed innocent focused on being the heroine. Stroud justifies her housing project stint to her mother with ‘it’s worse in our imaginations than reality’.
Real or imagined? Playwright Jacob Juntunen has written a lengthy script to give voice to many facets of social justice. Juntunen blurs the lines between reality and hallucination. It’s an interesting choice that leads to confusion with a plethora of stage activity. The opening scene of UNDER AMERICA is a powerful black/white faceoff between the youth and the reporter. On a set designed by Stephen Carmody, the Lake Forest family is silhouetted among stone colonnades. On the opposite side, the Cabrini Green folks are caged in industrial thresholds. The imagery is poignant! The first act whips by with numerous, short scenes. The next two acts follow the same style with frequent prop movement transitioning the setting. The repositioning of tables, chairs and a sleeping bag become exhausting and distracting. Coupled with side stories of sibling rivalry, prison tunnel network and couch shopping, the true intent goes OVER my head. WITH (p)repositioning, UNDER AMERICA could land IN the middle of UNDERwhelming and OVERwhelming.
Fresh from a Cubs and Scrabble win, Joel describes the show with ‘frustrating, helpless, real.’ Thtr Bob shares his own views at Chicago Theatre Addict.
WAITING FOR THE SHOW
Despite not discounting Mortar patrons for this show’s run, Jack’s, 2856 N. Southport, is on the street, in the budget zone and with a midscale bar menu. At Gerald’s suggestion, I skip the Malbec and allow the server to steer me to his favorite petite sirah. NICE! Gerald follows suit. Joel and Bob indulge in imported drafts. Not quite hungry from a peanut and pretzel feast in Wrigleyville, Joel and I go splitzies on a cheeseburger with a side of tater tots. Without prompting, the kitchen divides the entrée on two plates. NICE! The burger was tasty. From observing two lone tots, I assess the taters were good. Bob proclaims the mac and cheese a cozy nap-educing meal. With dinner over, we head next door to see what is UNDER AMERICA.