I am Montana @ Arcola Theatre, London

cast list
Kevin Watt, Mark Curtis, David Ames, Christopher Berry

directed by
Sherri Kronfeld
Eben is the type of employee that the soulless American chain store Valumart loves to prize.

The son of Jewish immigrants, a company employee since the age of sixteen, and a man who triumphed over near death whilst serving in the Israeli army, he demonstrates how Valumart (supposedly) upholds lifetime employment, bravery and cultural diversity.

But not everything feels as rosy for Eben in Samuel D. Hunter’s I Am Montana, produced here by the Yaller Skunk Theatre Company.His traumatic time in Israel saw him buried under rubble for several weeks with a Palestinian suicide bomber who was previously out to kill him.
Since returning to Montana he has been withdrawn, and this is the backdrop against which he drives across America with two Valumart co-workers, his old friend Tommy (David Ames) and the crack head Dirk (Christopher Berry), to attend Valumart’s national convention in Iowa.

Eben (Kevin Watt) insists on taking with him a bitterroot plant, which he nurtures night and day, and a suitcase whose contents remain a mystery, though it soon becomes clear that Eben doesn’t simply plan to appear in a Valumart advert at the convention.

On the plus side, the play generates a good sense of atmosphere. In the Arcola Theatre’s compact Studio 2, the scenery consists entirely of a backdrop of shelving upon which lie row after row of boxes sporting the Valumart happy pig logo. This emphasises the boredom of the workplace, whilst the boxes are also taken down to form beds or car seats in the various scenes. Between scenes, country and western music or local radio broadcasts are played to convey the sense of a road trip across America, whilst the main narrative is successfully broken up by the occasional insertion of a scene from either the past or the future.

The themes concerning progress and honesty are also interesting. When the Palestinian is trapped with Eben he explains that he planned to kill Israelis to make ‘a little progress’, but now he wants to save Eben because killing him would achieve nothing. As a result, Eben in the play goes on his own mission to make ‘progress’ before realising that progress can be something very different to what he had envisaged.

Similarly, when the ‘Valumart Valupig’ (an advertising manager played by Mark Curtis) tells Eben to ‘be honest’ on film, we instantly assume that this is ironic since he wants the Valumart ideal to be broadcast, not the reality. This urge to be honest, however, not only sees Eben finally confront his past, but also stops him seeing Valumart as simply oppressive and evil.

Unfortunately, the play is let down badly by its script. Virtually everything we learn about the characters and their past is through individuals giving the information to the audience under the guise of having a conversation with another person on stage. We elicit practically nothing from gestures and body language, and everything from the long and wordy sentences spouted by the characters.

This is a shame because all four actors work well with the material they have, suggesting that they deserve better. It is also a shame because there are plenty of good ideas in this play, only their impact is lost amidst lines that explain too much and allude to too little.

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