BWW Review: PUNK ROCK Packs a Punch

Punk Rock

Written by Simon Stephens; Direction & Scenic Design, David J. Miller; Costume Design, Melanie Hardy; Lighting Design, Jeff Adelberg; Sound Design, J Jumbelic; Fight Director, Meron Langsner; Stage Manager, Molly Burman; Dialect Coach, Lisa Rowe-Beddoe

CAST (in order of appearance): Phil Gillen, Emily White, James Fay, Alexandra Marie Harrington, Diego Buscaglia, Alana Osborn-Lief, Alex Levy, Victor Shopov

Performances through May 25 at Zeitgeist Stage Company, Plaza Black Box Theater, Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or

Zeitgeist, noun: Ideas and spirit of time, the ideas prevalent in a period and place, particularly as expressed in literature, philosophy, and religion.

Remember the 1979 film The China Syndrome about safety cover-ups at a nuclear power plant? It was released twelve days prior to the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania and is one of the more notable examples of life imitating art. Having planned the programming for its 12th season last summer, it is sheer coincidence that Zeitgeist Stage Company's current offering, Punk Rock by British playwright Simon Stephens, feels like it is ripped from the headlines in the aftermath of the violent tragedies of Newtown, Connecticut, and our own beloved Boston Marathon. Choosing a play that was inspired by the 2009 mass shooting at Columbine High School is in keeping with the theater company's mission to explore contemporary works "that reflect the mixture of comedy and drama in contemporary life...through timely and relevant productions," but no one could have predicted how close to home it would hit.

Set in the library of a grammar school (i.e., secondary school) in Stockport, UK, Punk Rock observes a group of students studying for their comprehensive A-level exams which determine where they'll get into college. While it is far from derivative, there are echoes of Spring Awakening, Lord of the Flies, and even Harry Potter as the seven teens assert their personalities, jockey for position, and strive to stand out or shrink into the background to survive the dangerous minefield of adolescence. Faced with parental expectations, peer pressure, and existential angst, each must find their own way to withstand the burdens without crumbling under their awesome weight.

Artistic Director David J. Miller directs Punk Rock with a sensitive and steady hand, drawing bravura performances from a cast of teens and young adults. Zeitgeist regular Victor Shopov (thoughtful and placid as Dr. Richard Harvey) is the old man of the ensemble and only figures in the action late in the play. Harvard University senior Phil Gillen is William Carlisle, an intelligent, articulate lad who asks curious and probing questions of his classmates in an effort to determine how things feel and what is normal. He is that annoying kid who you tolerate, but move away from in the lunch room. Gillen is at ease in the many variations of William's persona, from bright-eyed to longing, from defensive to aggressive, from fearful to commanding, and does a great job of foreshadowing behavior changes without tipping his hand.

At the outset, William is welcoming the new girl Lilly (Emily White) to Stockport and putting himself in the best light by offering to show her the ropes and secret areas of the school. As the other teens enter the library, their personalities are revealed by the way they carry themselves or relate to each other. Boyfriend and girlfriend Bennett (James Fay) and Cissy (Alexandra Marie Harrington) have a close physical presence and share an air of self-involvement. Nicholas (Diego Buscaglia) is the jovial jock with a confident stride and Tanya (Alana Osborn-Lief) is outgoing, but insecure and sensitive. All of the chatter among them ceases when Chadwick (Alex Levy) comes in, arms wrapped around his notebook held close to his chest. He seems more mature, and his posture and serious demeanor indicate that he is the nerd. Bennett verbally pounces on him right away, setting the tone for their encounters throughout the play.

Punk Rock is a disturbing, albeit realistic, look at adolescence. It delves into issues that are much talked about, but not entirely understood, and certainly not abated. The bullying behavior of Bennett, primarily aimed at Chadwick, stirs varying reactions from the other classmates. Whenever one dares to step into the breach, he turns and fires a fusillade of stinging comments at the encroacher. Ultimately, they withdraw and Bennett achieves his goal of supremacy while appearing to be quite pleased with himself. For his part, Chadwick tolerates the abuse in the way a horse swats its tail at a fly, resigned to the torment but more or less inured to it. The larger elephant in the room is the struggle to fit in and the psychological wounds sustained in that battle. Left untreated or unnoticed, those are the injuries that can cause some real damage in the less resilient students.

Stephens spends a great deal of time in the first act exposing who his characters are, detailing their quirks, their hopes and fears, and their alliances. He quietly builds the tension with references to external events and increasingly emotional exchanges between the kids. When act two begins, there has been a change in the atmosphere with unidentified danger lurking. Without knowing in what form, we know that violence is going to happen, but it still comes almost as a surprise because it is sudden in that moment. Miller and the antagonist stage the act with a sense of spontaneity that triggers an electric jolt throughout the audience and a collective feeling of horrified disbelief. It is truly a visceral moment and we are left shaken in its aftermath.

Miller places the stage in the center of the Plaza Black Box space which divides the audience in two and gives us the opportunity to observe the reactions of those seated across from us. It also brings us very close to the action for greater impact. Lighting Designer Jeff Adelberg segregates areas for specific conversations, uses spotlights to home in on key moments, but brightly illuminates the critical scene. J Jumbelic is the Sound Designer who plugs in appropriate background sounds of school bells ringing and loud rock music between scenes. The ensemble is attired in school uniforms designed by Melanie Hardy, and Meron Langsner is the Fight Director who helps to ratchet up the conflict without anyone getting hurt. Give credit to Dialect Coach Lisa Rowe-Beddoe for the clear and consistent British accents employed by all.

Zeitgeist Stage Company deserves credit for the courageous decision to go ahead with this production. Punk Rock is an important play which strongly articulates its message. It asks many of the right questions, but does not purport to have all of the answers. For that matter, I'm not sure it has any of the answers any more than the rest of us do. However, it is crucial to continue to ask and examine and analyze, to try to find some solutions to a problem whose prevalence is depressingly escalating. In the political world, any discussion of the issues of guns and violence is highly charged and polarizing, most often ending in stalemate with more heat than light cast upon the subject. Thankfully, the theater can be a forum where artists pretending to commit heinous acts results in thoughtful people recognizing that, when art imitates life, it is time to look in the mirror and reflect.

Photo credit: Richard Hall/Silverline Images (James Fay, Alexandra Marie Harrington, Alana Osborn-Lief, Phil Gillen)

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From This Author Nancy Grossman