The New Colony, a Chicago theatre company dedicated to producing new work, concludes its 2017 season with the world premiere of Punk, written by ensemble member Michael Allen Harris and co-directed by Diana Raiselis and Katrina Dion. Set in a segregated prison unit specifically for gay, bisexual, and transgender inmates, Punk explores the complicated lives and relationships of the inmates housed there, which are thrown out of balance when an inmate convicted of killing a gay man is transferred to the unit.
At the center of the story is a small “family” of inmates: Sonya (Evie Riojas), a transgender woman serving two life sentences; Glenn (Kyle Encinas), a sweet and affable artist; and Georgia (Aaron Sanchez), a tough, unapologetically flamboyant former prostitute. Managing the unit is Olivia (Monette McLin), who throughout the play advocates for the rights of her inmates but can never seem to do enough to satisfy either the inmates or herself. Life in the GBT unit, which is much safer for them than “gen pop,” or the general population of the prison, offers some sense of community and comfort to the inmates, who enjoy dance parties, handcrafted makeup and fashion, and the occasional contraband fashion magazine to make their time in prison more bearable.
This fragile peace is threatened, however, when Travis (Daniel Shtivelberg), who’s serving time for the murder of a gay man, is admitted to the unit at the demand of the warden. Travis, who requested the transfer after being repeatedly sexually assaulted by other inmates in gen pop, cares more than anything about his daughter, Annie, whom he gets updates on via his girlfriend Emily (Keyanna Khatiblou). This storyline isn’t as moving as it ought to be, perhaps because of Khatiblou’s acting choices; she seems detached from the events around her in a way that goes beyond her character’s relative lack of emotional connection to Travis.
This problem isn’t contained to Khatiblou, however. At times the characters are vivid and engaging, with laugh-out-loud sass, like Georgia’s hilarious line “anyone who uses spit as lube doesn’t love you,” or tenderness, like when Olivia offers Sonya access to contraband mascara while she’s working in Olivia’s office. But when the story gets serious, like during Travis’ initial explanation of his reasons for wanting to join the unit, or Glenn’s revelation of the true reason he’s behind bars, or even the characters’ reactions to a major tragedy toward the end of the show, the acting moments reach a level of intensity more appropriate to discussing a stressful logistical problem than deep-seated trauma or life-and-death circumstances.
Some of this may lie in the show’s writing, which slips between engaging verisimilitude and a kind of wooden bluntness with frustrating frequently. At one point, Glenn point-blank asks Travis “so why did you kill that gay man?” as if to announce that it’s now time to answer this central question of Travis’ character. What’s frustrating is that the play has all the elements it needs to succeed and then some: a diverse cast, a unique and fascinating setting, charming and complex characters, genuinely funny moments balancing out heavier subject matter. Somewhere in the script, the acting, the direction, or some combination of the three, the story’s strengths get muddied, and the play falls short of its considerable potential.
It’s clear that the artists involved have passion for their work and for the subject matter and that Punk as a story has something unique to offer the world. Perhaps a second production, with time in between for script revisions, will elevate Punk to the heights it can absolutely reach.
Location: The Den Theatre Upstairs Main Stage, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago
Regular run: Thursday, October 12 – Sunday, November 5, 2017
Curtain times: Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 pm; Sundays at 3 pm
Industry Night: Monday, October 23 at 7:30 pm
Tickets: Regular run: $20. Students/seniors: 25% off. Tickets are on sale now at the New Colony website.
All photos by Evan Hanover.