Review: Punk (The New Colony)

| October 12, 2017

Kyle Encinas, Aaron Sanchez, Evie Riojas and Daniel Shtivelberg star in Punk, The New Colony            



Written by Michael Allen Harris
The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee (map)
thru Nov 5  |  tix: $20  |  more info
Check for half-price tickets   


World-premiere ‘Punk’ a shaky endeavor


Kyle Encinas, Aaron Sanchez, Evie Riojas and Daniel Shtivelberg star in Punk, The New Colony

The New Colony presents

Review by Catey Sullivan

The first problem that’s evident with the premiere of Michael Allen Harris’ prison-set Punk is a visual that continues throughout the two-hour drama. The prison-set drama begins in the office of Olivia, the woman in charge of the facility’s segregated GBT wing. Olivia’s office is a screened-in area upstage. Roughly three-quarters of the stage in The New Colony production is empty every time the action moves to Olivia’s office. Anyone watching Punk will find their of vision filled with a vacant, gray expanse of empty space for much of the show. Compounding the problem are the screens, which give Olivia a blurry, pixelated look.

Evie Riojas and Daniel Shtivelberg star in Punk, The New ColonyCo-directors Diana Raiselis and Katrina Dion and set designer Eleanor Kahn have designed a physical setting that’s unworkable. It wouldn’t be so bad if the scenes in Olivia’s office were few. But they’re frequent. Every time the action advances through one of Olivia’s many phone calls to the (never seen or heard) warden, the audience is faced with empty space in addition to an unseen character. That structural error isn’t the only issue with Punk, although it’s the most visibly obvious.

There are also problems with the plot, namely crucial plot developments that don’t stand up to scrutiny. There are also problems with halting pacing, both in the dialogue and in the set changes..Most of all, Punk never feels believable. Set inside a vastly overcrowded prison, the world of Punk never seems especially crowded or claustrophobic. Or, for that matter, threatening. Characters talk about horrible things that have happened to them behind prison walls, but the words are not backed up with emotional veracity. They’re more speech-like than soul-baring.

The plot hinges on four inmates of the GBT wing, and the arrival of a fifth: A straight man convicted of murdering a gay man. The new arrival is Travis (Daniel Shtivelberg), who begged to be transferred after being repeatedly raped in the “gen pop” wing.

Kyle Encinas, Aaron Sanchez, Daniel Shtivelberg and Evie Riojas star in Punk, The New ColonyEvie Riojas, Aaron Sanchez and Kyle Encinas star in Punk, The New Colony

Olivia (Monette McLin) unequivocally turns him down. She’s already overcrowded and underfunded, Olivia says, there’s no way she can admit anybody new, certainly not a cis-straight man convicted of murdering a gay man. Travis, however, has some incredible clout. It’s not long before the warden is calling Olivia, and ordering her to admit Travis to her wing.

If you have a hard time figuring out why the all-powerful prison warden would break the rules and go out of his way to help one among thousands of inmates, you aren’t alone. What gives Travis power to bend the warden to his will – especially given Travis’ crime – is never explained. That means the (unseen) warden’s actions aren’t ever really believable. The plot forges ahead nonetheless, and it’s not long before, predictably, Travis and his virulent homophobia are making violent problems in the GBT wing.

And here, the plot fails in another major way. Before Travis shows up, playwright Harris spends a good deal of dialogue establishing the tight bonds between the “family” in the GBT wing. Glenn (Kyle Encinas), Sonya (Evie Riojas) and Georgia (Aaron Sanchez) are an exceptionally tight-knit family. Incredibly – especially given the ostensibly overcrowded conditions – nobody catches on when Travis starts terrorizing one in the group. Nor does the victim ever confide in the friends he’s forged supposedly unbreakable bonds with.

Daniel Shtivelberg and Kyle Encinas star in Punk, The New ColonyKeyanna Khatiblou and Daniel Shtivelberg star in Punk at The New Colony

Additionally, Punk relies far too often on Olivia’s one-sided phone calls to advance the action. Often, her scene partner is a phone prop. At one point, she addresses the entire wing. The teeming room of inmates is depicted solely by sound design. The contrast between the crowd noises and the empty stage only underscores the fact that this prison feels spacious and sparsely populated. Finally, there’s a subplot involving Travis’ daughter and girlfriend that is more soap opera diversion than an integral part of the story. Harris might be trying to address the socio-economic problems that the prison industrial complex forces on people, but if that’s his aim, he’s ineffectual.

Throughout, the ensemble has problems with pacing. The dialogue rarely feels spontaneous, especially in the halting, multi-conversational scene that follows intermission, when there are three or four two-person conversations going on simultaneously. Instead of a seamless transition among conversations, there’s an extra beat or so between them. The cumulative effect is that of a hyper-allegro piano riff that stops every so often because the keyboardist can’t quite figure out the fingering.

Within the cast, only Evie Riojas’ Sonya comes close to anything akin to depth and veracity. Sonya is believably tough and simultaneously vulnerable – this is a character whose taciturn demeanor surely is clearly the outer armor of someone who has been repeatedly wounded. Sonya can’t carry the show however, and the other performances largely alternate between studied, wooden and overdone.

Between the distracting set design, the plot holes and the ultimately ineffective performances by the rest of the cast, Punk is a weak endeavor.

Rating: ★★

Punk continues through November 5th at The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm.  Tickets are $20, and are available by phone (773-697-3830) or online through (check for availability of half-price tickets). More information at time: 2 hours, includes an intermission)

Monette McLin, Aaron Sanchez, Evie Riojas and Daniel Shtivelberg star in Punk, The New Colony

Photos by Evan Hanover




Kyle Encinas (Glenn), Keyanna Khatiblou (Emily), Monette McLin (Olivia), Evie Riojas (Sonya), Aaron Sanchez (Georgia), Daniel Shtivelberg (Travis).

Understudies: Nate Smith (Travis), Julia Skaggs (Emily), Siiri Scott (Olivia), Alexia Jasmene (Sonya), Jay Espano (Georgia), Esteban Reyna (Glenn).

behind the scenes

Diana Raiselis, Katrina Dion (co-directors), Topher Leon (asst. director), Ryan Olivera (dramaturg), Rose Hamill (stage manager), Ali Drumm (stage manager), Samantha Corn (asst. stage manager), Caswell James (technical director), Eleanor Kahn (set design), Eric Watkins (lighting design), Jeffrey Levin (sound design), Uriel Gomez (costume design), Sydney Ashley (props design), Michael Joseph (master electrician), Kyle Encinas (choreography), Evan Hanover (photos)

Aaron Sanchez, Evie Riojas, Kyle Encinas and Daniel Shtivelberg star in Punk, The New Colony


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Category: 2017 Reviews, Catey Sullivan, Den Theatre, New Colony, New Work, World Premier

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