Can killings like those at Columbine and Sandy Hook be prevented? Going forward, can parents, school staff and therapists work together to combat bullying and resolve inner rages? The powerfully disturbing drama “Punk Rock” —now in a ferociously unflinching area premiere by Zeitgeist Stage Company- never pretends to have easy answers to these questions. Even so, playwright Simon Stephens has orchestrated the explosive discord at a comparable British school with insights that demand attention.
Set in the library of a Stockport, UK grammar school from October to December in the present, ‘’Punk Rock” gradually introduces seven students- four male and three female- whose classes and school concerns overlap or conflict. The play’s title derives in part from the brief stretches of punk rock music heard as often as classroom bells between scenes.
At the same time, ‘punk’ may relate to the bullying — especially by domineering Bennett—and petty cruelties that many of the students visit upon each other in the library —and surely in and out of school. Mediocre student Bennett particularly targets nerdy Chadwick, and his homophobic cracks and curious body language with the brilliant student clearly cover his own sexual ambivalence. Students speculate about their peers’ sexual activity and quickly pass around the latest rumors involving students and teachers. Those with perfectionist parents stress over a B on an otherwise straight A report card, while others worry about being fat when they are not.
Eventually, the bullying, cruelties and stress lead one student to an explosive reaction. The identity of that student may surprise some theatergoers, but Stephens provides sufficient foreshadowing. Audience members who think the playwright is overstating his cautionary case should stay for the post-performance talkback (one after each performance) — where experts are quick to validate his points.
Zeitgeist Stage out artistic director David J. Miller—who doubles as set designer—sharply paces the play and puts the library tables and bookcases between the two halves of the audience for a you-are-there effect. The seven young actors possess true ensemble strength. James Fay finds Bennett’s vulnerability as his venom. Phil Gillen balances dreamer William’s exaggerating about his life and his feeling for newcomer Lilly, played with the right combination of friendliness and standoffishness by Emily White. Alana Osborn-Lief catches Tanya’s loyalty to Bennett’s girlfriend Cissy as well as her spirit sizing up the bully. Alexandra Maria Harrington’s callous Cissy, Alex Levy’s largely unruffled Chadwick and Diego Buscaglia’s debonair Nicholas-who romances Lilly- round out the student septet. Victor Shopov wisely underplays the only adult character in the play, therapist Dr. Richard Harvey, whose exhaustive questionnaire proves tellingly too late to help.
In an earlier Zeitgeist rite of passage powerhouse, the play version of “Spring Awakening, students struggled to escape the control of parents, faculty and clergy. Miller and company have relentlessly tapped into what is most chilling about “Punk Rock's" hard-edged stage rhythms. Now the students are largely controlling each other.
Punk Rock, Zeitgeist Stage Company, Plaza Black Box, Boston Center for the Arts, through May 26. 617-933-8600 or bostontheatrescene.com
A very different fight for control dominates the Cold War era —set musical “Chess.” Ostensibly centered on 1984 and 1985 world chess championships and on-going tensions between the United States and the U.S.S.R., the tuneful Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (music) —Tim Rice (lyrics) musical ultimately focuses most on human rather than political conflicts — the loneliness and vulnerability of the Bobby Fischer-like American grand master, the inner war of the Russian grand master and the volatile relationship between him and the American’s second Florence.
Gifted Longwood Players director Kaitlyn Chantry has placed the actual chess matches at the rear of the YMCA Theatre stage so that the human conflicts rightly dominate. This revival-which enhances the memorable score in a kind of concert edition with Chantry’s own spirited choreography - is unquestionably the finest of several versions that this critic has seen. The leads are especially luminous. Dynamic Athan Mantalos sings with a robust baritone as Russian, and his duets with songbird Rachel Savage as Florence are very moving. Kevin Hanley captures all of the American’s pathos —most notably as he sings viscerally in “Pity the Child” of being thought “queer” by his father and becoming a very early orphan.
Savage and Eliza Xenakis as the Russian’s perceptive wife Svetlana sing vibrantly on the great duet “I Know Him So Well.” Theatergoers-even those who think they know this musical- will truly appreciate its considerable virtues after seeing Chantry’s championship “Chess.”
Chess, The Longwood Players, YMCA Theatre, Cambridge, through May 11.longwoodplayers.org
Another revival not to be missed is the Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s benchmark edition of David Mamet’s modern classic “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Company artistic director Charles Towers closes the deal with a blue chip ensemble- with Will LeBow’s alternately begging and bragging Leven and Todd Licea’s charismatic and cocky Roma the standouts. The very frank dialogue- with realtors putting each other down with sexually demeaning epithets as well as four letter words- crackles with dark humor and insight. The result is a “Glengarry Glen Ross” as fiery as the red of designer Bill Clarke’s opening Chinese restaurant set.
Glengarry Glen Ross, Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Lowell, through May 19. 978-654-4678 or mrt.org
The 35th anniversary edition of the Big Apple Circus should be an occasion for rejoicing, and much of the time it is. “Legendarium,” a lively look at the development of the circus as a popular entertainment and an art form, boasts amazing acts as always- this time the phenomenal Menno Van Dyke and Emily Weisse in Tango Jugglers, slack wire wizard Zhang Fan and the inventor of the Cyr Wheel himself Daniel Cyr. The one surprise is the relatively conventional clowning of Seth Bloom and Christina Gelsone as Acrobuffos. Bloom did dance with a self-assured male audience member at this performance, but his and Gelsone’s routines lacked the envelope-pushing inventiveness of retired clown great Barry Lubin as Grandma.
Big Apple Circus, Boston, through May 12, bigapplecircus.org
Boston Ballet has cleverly inserted the company premiere of a perspective-changing 2006 Wayne McGregor ballet “Chroma” between two classic Balanchine pieces in its latest program named for the middle offering. “Serenade” brings together elegant formations and trademark Balanchine moves. Intricate shifts and a striking rectangle set design piece by John Pawson distinguish the percussion-powered “Chroma.” “Symphony in C” demonstrates the very high caliber of the corps de ballet as well as of such talented soloists as Paulo Arrais, Lia Cirio and Lawrence Rines. The famous finale- bringing together artists and students alike- proves a testament to the gold standard technique of the company.
Boston Ballet, Chroma, Opera House, Boston, through May 12. 617-695-6955 or bostonballet.org
David Friedman early on was a piano major studying with Russell Sherman at the New England Conservatory of Music. He even worked as a counselor after college at the Dover-based Charles River Center for Creative Arts. While writing shows for his campers to perform, he told Bay Windows, ‘I realized that I wanted to do theater.” How fitting that the out Norwalk, Connecticut composer should return to Boston now to present two free public performances of his Off-Broadway show “Listen to My Heart in celebration of Wheelock College’s 125th anniversary. Describing the show as “more than just a revue, he called it “an exploration inside the mind and heart of a songwriter.”
Accompanying himself on piano, Friedman will be joined by Heather Krueger, Alison Burns, Lulu Picart, Fred Ross and Craig Sculli (the last two New York actors) —all of whom he referred to as “the cream of the crop in Tampa. Besides “Listen to My Heart”-written for the great late songstress Laurie Beecham, the 90 minute show will include such well-known Friedman songs as “Trust the Wind" "I Finally Let Go” (inspired by the break-up of a long-term relationship), “Let Me Be the Music” and “I Will Be with You.” “We try to take the specific and make it universal,” he explained.
Known for writing songs for Disney movies (for example, “Aladdin”) and such celebrated singers as Diana Ross, Barry Manilow, Lainie Kazan, Leslie Uggams and the late great cabaret artist Nancy LaMott, Friedman has also written a ground-breaking book called ‘The Thought Exchange.” The multi-talented composer is working in conjunction with Wheelock College faculty on developing a ‘Thought Exchange” workshop for Inner City school children. He also expects to conduct some master classes in the Hub in the near future. “I love Boston,” he admitted.
David Friedman, Concerts at Wheelock Family Theatre, Boston, May 15 and 16.617-879-2200 or wheelockfamilytheatre.org