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Review: In Montag, Two Women Hide Out and Prepare to Fight

Kate Tarker's genre-bending play makes its world premiere at Soho Rep.

Nadine Malouf and Ariana Venturi star in Kate Tarker's Montag, directed by Dustin Wills, at Soho Rep.
(© Julieta Cervantes)

Seeing Montag, Kate Tarker's new play at Soho Rep, is like stepping into a dark room. It takes a while for your eyes to adjust and process what's happening. This is both metaphorical and literal under Masha Tsimring's intimate lighting, which keeps the stage not much brighter than a Caravaggio painting. What we can immediately discern is that we are looking at a small, enclosed space occupied by two women: Faith (Ariana Venturi) sits at a table and chain smokes. Novella (Nadine Malouf) loudly munches on chips. "It's like eating the bones of your enemies," she opines, stuffing a big greasy handful into her mouth.

And we deduce that Faith and Novella have an enemy — one, they are convinced, who is on the way to kill them. We also learn that they are near an American military base in Germany, and this enemy (a soldier and former boyfriend) is likely armed and dangerous. Sleep-deprived, they prepare for an invasion. They put on sparkly nightclub attire and start running laps around the room, simulating combat with a kitchen knife and frying pan. And then things get really weird.

Tarker, who spent her early years as a military brat in Germany, is the author of the war comedy Thunderbodies, which debuted at Soho Rep in 2018 and had critics divided (I didn't see it). In Montag, she displays a talent for physical comedy and salty language. She fearlessly blends genres and tones, which could be a real problem for a novice director working with less-talented actors.

Ariana Venturi plays Faith, and Nadine Malouf plays Novella in Montag at Soho Rep.
(© Julieta Cervantes)

Luckily, Dustin Wills (Wolf Play) helms the production, which benefits greatly from the physical commitment of Venturi and Malouf (the two should really consider opening a boutique gym specializing in terror aerobics). Even when we're not quite sure what we're watching, we know we want to see more as the tension builds over 90 strange and fascinating minutes.

Unexpected reveals from Lisa Laratta's set help to achieve real horror onstage. Sound designer Sinan Refik Zafar makes us flinch in our seats, and Tsimring occasionally plunges us into total darkness. Montag is a great Halloween watch.

It all leads to a breathtaking scene in which death (sporting a mirrorball head) stalks the stage while the women perform ridiculous pratfalls. Composer Daniel Schlosberg underscores the stage action with music that seamlessly leaps from Baroque adagio to modern dance music to Rupert Holmes to high opera. A tenor voice echoes from backstage and grows louder (the spectacularly powerful Dane Suarez). Dressed vaguely like Meat Loaf in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (costumes by Montana Levi Blanco), Suarez (playing a character named "Greg") confronts death with his song. For several minutes, horror, comedy, and operatic majesty coexist on the same stage. The fact that it holds us rapt and slack-jawed is a testament to the steady hand of the director.

A scene from Kate Tarker's Montag at Soho Rep.
(© Julieta Cervantes)

Tarker seems to be expressing something about the lingering dread of male violence. This fear doesn't just stem from sex-based mass shootings, like the one that took place at a spa outside Atlanta last year. Women are far likelier to be murdered (and even likelier to be assaulted) by an intimate partner. This is a real problem, but what's the solution?

"You are soft and female too," the tenor sings, later receding into the darkness with the line, "Without softness there's no future." This is not the first time the subject of male softness has come up in the theater, and the word in this context is approaching a level of cliché similar to mansplaining and toxic masculinity. (Has anyone in the theater been able to articulate what nontoxic masculinity looks like?) Maybe placing such fashionable lingo in a delirious hallucination is Tarker's way of relegating the mass embrace of male softness to the realm of fantasy, where it obviously belongs. Surely, with her connections to the military, she is aware that we are entering a hard period of global strife during which softness will become a luxury for a privileged few — men and women. A utopian future of softness is a fine idea in a dark room, but it looks unserious when exposed to the light of day.