With his high-powered play, Punk Rock, Simon Stephens, a Tony-Award-winning playwright (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night), amps up the not-uncommon teenaged anxiety over sex, desire, ambition, fear, and uncertainty of the future into something potentially lethal. Seven upper level students at a toney English school have carved out their own space in a little-used library nook where they can study and schmooze. But it is not a safe haven. The dynamics of this coterie include brutal bullying, sexual tension, and anxiety over the upcoming university-entrance exams that will determine the trajectory of their lives.
William Carlisle (Zachary Grant) encounters a vivacious new student, Lilly (Raven Scott), studying in the library hideaway. William, a sensitive boy, hesitant and yearning, is gob-smacked over the girl and mistakes her friendliness for something more. Soon the rest of the usual residents show up. Hanging all over each other, Bennett Francis (Jacob B. Gibson), a handsome, energetic livewire, has a sloppy physical relationship with Cissy Franks (Miranda Wynne), a lovely, straight-A over-achiever. Cissy’s friend, Tanya Gleason (Story Slaughter), a cheerful, self-conscious, slightly over-weight girl with a loving nature, wants nothing more in life than to be the best of mothers. Nicholas Chatman (Nick Marini), an athletic Adonis, is not the conceited sort one might expect. He is kind, good-natured, and attracted to Lilly, who reciprocates. Lastly, there is Chadwick Meade (Kenney Selvey), a brilliant introvert, a loner who is the preferred target of the outrageously-cruel, always-smiling bully, Bennett, who punctuates his merciless malice with, “Just kidding.”
The playwright starts with a giddy comedy of teenaged manners that leads inexorably to confused desires, and ultimately to unlooked for consequences. It’s a witch’s-brew of adolescent angst powered by an extraordinary ensemble of first-rate young actors. Under the impeccable direction of Lisa James, with never a false move nor hesitation, this wonderful bunch owns their stage. They are true to life. Even a dropped prop is simply another thing in the continuous action of the characters. The performance, individually and as a group, is often hilarious, touching and, ultimately, can’t-look-away, chillingly enthralling.
Set designer John Iacovelli has worked his usual wonders within the space available. Lighting designer Brian Gale subtly directs the audience attention and enthusiastically creates a light show that pulsates along with the irresistible, punk-rock sound design of Christopher Moscatiello. (I especially enjoyed the sound of an insect as it flew from place to place in the room.) Costumes by designer Halei Parker reinforce character and action. Gripping fight choreography by Matthew Glave is enough to knot one’s stomach. And the variety of dialects coached by Anne Burk is consistent and authentic.
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s production of Punk Rock is theatre at its best, funny and horrifying, touching and mesmerizing. Don’t miss it. Travel if you have to. See it while you can. Punk Rock runs through May 14 at Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. in Los Angeles.