(Chris Jones’s article appeared in the Chicago Tribune, 2/3.)
Capable ensembles of early-career actors aren't uncommon in Chicago's huge, non-Equity theater scene — increasingly the preferred theatrical destination for the well-trained and only just out of school.
These days, open-minded, risk-inclined directors have plenty of fresh choices from this demographic (assuming no one has to sing). But the young, mostly-unknown-in-town cast of Jonathan Berry's deeply affecting production of "Punk Rock" at the Griffin Theatre is, taken as a whole, remarkable enough for your mouth to keep dropping open in surprise at the depth and raw frankness of their work. It's like a trout farm of talent, swimming around in their school uniforms.
That jaw would not be falling without Berry's direction. He does here what I was hoping he would do with Griffin's disappointing recent production of the musical "Spring Awakening," only he couldn't or didn't. "Punk Rock" is a closely observed and dark, yet affectionate, play by British playwright Simon Stephens. Stephens is a former teacher himself; his compassionate and unsentimental work has proved so many times to be a fine match for Chicago theaters that he has handed Griffin Theatre the United States premiere of this play. It is about bright but tortured adolescents in a school near the northern England city of Manchester, where this play was first performed in 2009, and where, in full disclosure, I was a kid myself. They try to assert themselves, look cool, pursue each other sexually and come out on top in the crucial, life-or-death standardized exams that pockmark the British educational system.