Whether it be after the powerful strike of an unsettling truth or the deafening ricochet of a gunshot, CSUF’s production of “Punk Rock” speaks its highest volumes within its quiet, intense moments.
Directed by Luke Yankee, the 2009 play is written by British playwright Simon Stephens, and it’s a disheartening look into the minds of teenagers. Seven students have the expected everyday high school melodramas, such as worrying about exam grades or an unrequited crush, though discussions of the effect of emotional abuse, self-harm and identity suppression take center stage.
The minimalistic set is only furnished by the plain black walls of Arena Theatre and the red wood desks and chairs of an English prep school. William Carlisle (Patrick Curley) nervously welcomes new student Lilly Cahill (Natalie Giannosa) in an awkward yet witty introduction to the show as the rest of the cast gradually fills in.
In William and Lilly’s second interaction, they playfully discuss their common irritations and dive into their deepest fears. Lilly observes William having “shy hair” but as the production continues, William pulls and tugs at his hair in a transformation that is the most compelling aspect of the show.
“Punk Rock” can often feel like an after-school special. Each character reveals their own imperfections as a tool to raise awareness of their prevalence and encourage discussion. It follows common storylines of teen dramas with high school stereotypes, love triangles and over-the-top outbursts. It seems to take influence from “Skins” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” in tone. The show treats its characters with maturity and throws cute and glossy teen portrayals away, but it doesn’t feel revolutionary to its predecessors.
Spencer Cassling commands the stage as Bennett Francis for a majority of the show, as the bully shamelessly gets under the other teens’ skin and creates havoc with each tormenting and offensive word he says. His performance is so effective that it often becomes sickening to watch. Bennett works to expose fears and insecurities for all to confront, a stinging open wound that aggravates with every poke and jab.
Bennett’s main object of scrutiny is Chadwick Meade (Seth Kleber) who fulfills the nerd role. Chadwick delivers the most chilling lines in the production, as he brings his oppressor and the theater to a startling silence by sharing aspects of society’s violent nature. His educated side commentary throughout the show is especially gloomy, mostly because of its accuracy.
The cleverness of the play lies in how successfully unpredictable many of the characters are and how intricately the entire cast performs their roles. The audience may form opinions in the beginning about how each student will work into the storyline based on preconceived notions of high school narratives. However, they may instead find themselves witnessing a completely different conclusion than they were expecting as the show closes.
“Punk Rock” is a small and humble production that requires a bit of imagination from the audience. It may take patience at some points to sit through the many scenes portraying abuse and injustice for many of its characters, and it doesn’t offer very much optimism to walk away with. It does, however, offer a simulation of teenage confinement – of being stuck in fear, dependence and in possibility, with the itch to find the chosen door out.
The production will run in the Arena Theatre until Oct. 28.