Rambling About Details Between the Graffiti
Punkplay with the World's Stage
I see over 100 shows per year. They all tend to blend together. So whenever there's something that looks and feels significantly different from the rest of it, I tend to be really happy with it just because it's something different. And so Fly Steffens' staging of Gregory S. Moss' Punkplay gets a huge pass for me on a lot of its flaws simply by having the courage to do something that doesn't feel quite like the other 100+ shows I will have seen this year.
The show is currently running in the basement of Cream City Collectives. If you get a chance to see it there, do . . . it's cramped, it's crowded, it's sweaty and it's passionate. If you're into the aesthetic that a show about '80s punk is celebrating, then you're going to love the ambience. And once you're mind drifts beyond the mood and atmosphere of the piece, you'll be following what actually ends up being a really interesting story about a couple of boys played by a couple of young women with a promising amount of talent. Emily Rindt and Liz Leighton show tremendous potential here . . . it's kind of a fearless dive into a couple of characters that these woman are doing and it's fun to watch.
And the script is good too . . . I was expecting the whole owing of age thing. I was expecting the tribute to punk. I was even expecting a fairly decent live punk performance to accompany the show courtesy of Daniel James and Bryce Kedrowicz. (Very authentic punk sound there that just wouldn't feel right outside of the graffiti-strewn basement that the show opens in this weekend.) What I wasn't expecting was the Joseph Campbell-esque Journey Of The Hero thing that the play does. Liz Leighton is playing a hero on a journey that . . . well . . . the script is just incredibly cool on a variety of different levels that all blend together quite well. Kind of reminded me of Marcus' Lipstick Traces the way it fused theatre with punk with a story that feels very much like heroic ancient legend. First she discovered the journey in discovering the music and a friendship with Emily Rindt's character, who could sort of be seen as an allegorical figure representing punk rock itself . . . then she has to abandon her old idol in the form of a cool older punk played by tim Palacek . . . then there's the journey into adulthood in having an encounter with the unattainably exotic girl from school . . . and in the end, all idols and rules have been thrown off. The end of the play is very clever . . . transcendental, really . . .
Okay, that being said . . . the script is great and any show that embraces the DIY aesthetic has the right idea. A show like this that embraces imperfection has the right idea. Director Fly Steffens did a really good job putting this together . . . but there were a few little things . . .
--THE COMIC BOOKS. There's a hypnotic shower of comic books that occasionally confronts the characters . . . and its a very cool effect that carries with it its own kind of symbolism. And if you're sitting in the front row these things get tossed around quite a lot and you might get hit with one . . . my problem with that was that . . . they weren't all comics from the '80s. It's a weird and minor detail, but comic books from the Reagan era were mostly printed on cheap newsprint. There was color there, but it tended to be faded and washed-out. Bright, heroic colors on faded, cheap newsprint showering characters at key points in the production would be that much more interesting visually than a weird mishmash of more recent comics. Modern comics were printed on better paper, more vibrant colors and have a sharper look to them that isn't quite as symbollic as washed-out ink representing fantastic images of heroism showering our very real, three-dimensional heroes.
It was kind of difficult for me to feel authentically in the era with comic books from the '90s and beyond. Again, that's just a weird thing with respect to me, though . . . And judging from the state of those things by the end of opening night, they're probably going to need to periodically get a few more handfuls of comics for the production because as very active props, they get pretty torn-up by the end of a performance. wow. . . way too much time spent thinking about those props. I like the imagery I just think it could be fine-tuned is all I'm saying. And on a completely different note, I love that when Palacek cracks open a can of steel reserve as the idolized older punk, you can actually smell it in the front row. If I'm not mistaken, he downs an entire can of the stuff in what is actually a relatively brief scene. In the intimacy of this kind of studio theatre environment, the smell of beer in the front row is a nice touch.
--AND FAR MORE IMPORTANTLY…the script leans pretty heavily on the exotic nature of the character of unattainable Asian girl Sue. She's played by Chinese UWM costume production student Chen Chen. Chen Chen is authentically Asian, which is absolutely essential to the role. And her accent having only been in the US for three years is absolutely beautiful. There's a kind of precision and perfection in Chen Chen's distinct flavor of ESL that feels very pure. It's a really strikingly exotic addition to the production, especially as so few local theatre productions feature Asian actors of any kind. The issue here is that it's really evident that she doesn't have much experience onstage . . . and as witnessed here she doesn't seem to have much talent for acting either. Her performance is pretty flat, which actually adds to the performance in a way . . . makes her feel all the more exotic . . . all the more like this enigmatic point of deep, emotional interest for our hero. The problem is that she's really integral to the end of the play. It ends on this transcendentally surreal note that relies on her quite heavily and there's a vague sense of disconnect about it that isn't quite in sync with the potential of the script. Really if I have any lasting problem with the production, it's that last scene. Leighton is doing such an amazing job of going through the transformation, but the otherworldly component isn't quite there because Chen Chen isn't quite where she needs to be with that presentation . . .
But that aside, this is a really, really fun production. This type of thing simply doesn't get performed nearly enough. There's visceral feel of it reaching through sweat, heat, tattered newsprint and graffiti--the desire to reach for something bigger than all of that through all of the flaws and filth. Something like this doesn't come along very often.
The World's Stage Theatre's production of Punkplay runs through September 8th at Cream City Collectives on 732 East Clarke Street. For ticket reservations, click here.
It then moves to Bucketworks on 706 South 5th Street for performances the 13th through 15th. For ticket reservations, click here.
A concise review of the show runs in the next Shepherd-Express.