Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
It would be difficult to conceive of a play with more anger, heart, and energy than Verböten, now playing in a world premiere by The House Theatre. Because it tells the story of a Chicago teen punk band in 1983 (a band that actually existed whose guitarist, Jason Narducy, wrote the songs for this play), Verböten lives in a world where all emotion is exaggerated by the extremities of teen life. Nothing is ever clear and benign when you are trying to figure out who you are, who your family, who your friends are in a world that seems designed to make life more difficult. Most of the kids—and some of the adults—in this play live in a torturous in-between state, wishing for something they don’t or can’t have or desperately reaching into a past that may or may not have been fulfilling. And all of this is filtered through and portrayed by a pounding punk rock soundtrack that serves as a reminder of just how perfect a mode of expression that genre can be for teens trying to make sense of life’s pain.
The House Artistic Director Nathan Allen directs a multi-talented cast (all sing and most play instruments) along with his design team, which includes, among others, Lee Kienan (set and lights designer), Grover Holliday (sound designer), and Matthew Muñez (music director) from a layered and complex script by Brett Neveu that overlaps the experiences of the four band members and folds time, allowing multiple scenes to occur simultaneously. We begin to see this effect from the opening moments when Jason (Kieran McCabe) appears in two scenes in the same space but at different times—one with his divorced father (Ray Rehberg), with whom he is living very unhappily, and one with his new stepdad (Jimmy Chung), who also plays guitar and seems to understand Jason more. That conceit being established, the play follows Jason and the band through the turmoil of the days leading up to their huge concert at the Cubby Bear.
Among Verböten’s other members is bassist Chris (Matthew Lunt), whose parents are rarely around so he spends most of his time with his despondent and perpetually drunk sister (Marika Mashburn), who can’t get past the breakup with her boyfriend or the fact that her job is unfulfilling, making it easy to see why he also heavily abuses alcohol. Zack, the drummer (Jeff Kurysz) lives with his father (Mark A. Rogers), an aging rock and roller whom he thinks is embarrassing. Lead vocalist and band leader Tracey (Krystal Ortiz) is the only one of these teens who seems to have a completely healthy relationship with her parents (Paul Brian Fagen and Jenni M. Hadley), who adopted her as an infant, even though she is going through what they call a rebellious phase (signified here by green hair).
In the days before the big show, most of the drama centers on Jason, who has been fighting with his dad while he is still trying to deal emotionally with his parents’ divorce and has written a new song (which he calls an “anthem”) about his pain. He presents the song to the band and Tracey, despite having only two days left to get it together, wants to debut it at the Cubby Bear. She also wants the reserved Jason, the band’s youngest member, to sing it. Despite the sophisticated verbiage that Neveu often puts into their mouths, Narducy keeps the lyrics of the songs appropriate to the bands’ ages; they are often direct translations of angst and include lines like “I don’t want to fight/ I don’t need to fight/ Here comes another one of those nights/ I’m not sorry” and “I never wanted to be left here alone/ I never wanted a broken home.” Through these simple lines and the driving punk rock music, Narducy easily conveys what it feels like to be angry, confused, and fifteen. (By the way, the show also makes a good argument that the punk rock genre matches this age group perfectly, as Verböten’s songs—angst-ridden as they are—feel much more honest and real than the one “adult” punk song sung by Timothy Daniel Remis as a member of the successful band Germ Shepard. “I won’t hesitate/ to annihilate/ the culture that does not understand me” just sounds silly coming out of an adult mouth.)
Verböten—the umlaut is important—has many scenes in which the cast rocks out their emotions (negative or positive), but some of its best moments are much quieter, as when Tracey’s parents each try their hardest to find ways to communicate with her or when she and Jason discuss how they process experiences (Tracey has a theory involving chromosomal structure) or even a late-night phone call. These scenes allow us to see more of these kids than the pain they let out in their music and give the play much more weight. Ultimately, the best thing about the crazy emotional swings of adolescence is that they pass, and this play ends up very uplifting despite not really resolving some of its darker issues. That is because, though the music is often angry, it is also celebratory: kids celebrating the freedom to express themselves as the people they are. They’re at a stage in life when everything feels like the end of the world, and it certainly shows here, but the audience (mostly much older people, naturally) knows how to put it all in perspective, and this rocking, passionate, dynamic, and very familiar show is only a beat in time.
Verböten is now playing at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W Division, Chicago, IL, until Mar 8. The show runs approximately 2:10; there is one intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com