In the program note for Rock the Line, Playwright Kathleen Warnock describes her new play as, “Kind of like Waiting for Godot, if Godot really came and played electric guitar.” As it turns out, this is actually a pretty accurate sentiment. As in Beckett or Chekhov, nothing much happens in Rock the Line, at least on the surface. The setting, as reported by Warnock, is a parking lot at a “Rock Club in the Rust Belt,” eight hours before doors open for Patti Roxx, a Joan Jett inspired rock goddess whose small coterie of diehard fans sits waiting for their queen to arrive.
In the meantime, as the devotees sip beer and while away the hours, their dreams, passions, and insecurities all rise to the surface, sparking drama, humor, and occasionally wisdom. Along the way, Warnock and Director (and Venus Theatre Artistic Director) Deborah Randall manage to craft a powerful intersectional commentary that addresses gender, sexuality, and class anxieties.
Scenic Designer Amy Belschner-Rhodes creates a simple but evocative landscape of metal and plywood, wall papered with old punk show flyers (including an awesome old ad for “The Misfits” at the 9:30 Club). And of course, the old wrecked sky blue VW bug, which has now become a regular ensemble member at Venus, makes another appearance in Rock the Line, cementing the tableau of American industrial decay. It is against this gun metal backdrop, when the lights go up at the start of Act I, the ensemble members march on one by one.
First there is Nancy (Rebecca Herron), the self described “Number One” top dog of the group, followed by her long time girlfriend Lucy (played by a gentle and funny Myrrh Cauthen). Next there is Kelly (played with pink lipstick spunkiness by Lida Maria Benson), a 23 year-old aspiring musician, arriving with Joanne (Tamieka Chavis), a grounded but guarded ex-Marine. Leslie (Deborah Randall) is a bit of a wallflower compared to her fellow disciples of rock, and Mickey (Patrick Gorirossi), the lone male of the bunch, tries to act tough but mostly ends up betraying his own insecurities.
Points of tension soon appear within this group of leather clad acolytes. Most notably there is Candy File (Amy Rhodes), a be-mohawked former rocker with violent tendencies who insists that Patti Roxx speaks to her directly through her songs… and not in a metaphorical sense. We also find out that Leslie has long been in love with Joanne, who may or may not feel the same way but is at any rate terrified of “endings” including in potential relationships. Meanwhile, Mickey is intent on winning over Kelly, who seems decidedly uninterested. And Nancy, despite her tough as nails exterior, conceals a raw inner vulnerability that Lucy must assuage again and again.
The cast navigates this subtle emotional whirlpool with great dexterity. Amy Rhodes is wonderfully engaging as the unbalanced Candy. Although her character causes a good deal of trouble for the rest of the rockers, Rhodes is careful to show that Candy’s aggression springs from deep pain. She becomes a sympathetic character despite herself. Rebecca Herron also gives a standout performance as Nancy, the punk rock den mother. Exuding love and badassery in equal parts, Herron is like the cool lesbian biker in the bar who laughs loud and orders beer by the pitcher, but you wouldn’t want to get on her bad side.
The beating heart of the show is the hot and cold romance between Joanne and Leslie. Deborah Randall gives a sweet and sensitive portrayal of Leslie, a fourth grade Catholic school teacher who late-bloomed into her love of women and of Patti Roxx. In contrast, Joanne is a down to earth EMT who learned about discrimination the hard way when she was kicked out of the military in the days of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’
As Joanne, Tamieka Chavis gives a nuanced and authentic performance. The push and pull between the two women – Leslie’s desire and Joanne’s fear – makes for a tension so visceral that at one point the audience spontaneously cheered during a particular moment in their awkward courtship.
One of the most interesting takeaways from Rock the Line is how, hidden within the simple premise of a group of groupies gathering for their nightly rock ritual, is a whole complex thicket of ideas related to gender, sexuality, and class in America. First, the majority of the characters are lesbians, and the play more than satisfies the Bechdel Test.
The story revolves around the characters’ love for Patti Roxx, a feminist icon in the mold of Joan Jett whose message of personal empowerment coincides with an ambiguous sexual identity. Ironically, the pro-woman message of the show is perhaps best exemplified by the sole male character, Mickey, who delivers a passionate monologue about his love of women. His attraction to females is sexual, but it also surpasses that into something more religious.
Most of the characters work blue collar jobs, and they tease Leslie for having a college education and Mickey for going “management.” Many of the characters rail against their jobs and how much (or how little) money they make. In one hilarious scene, they talk about their various dreams of destroying their workplaces in creative ways. And yet, a central message of the play seems to be a celebration of working class values like hard work, collective action, and overcoming obstacles.
Beyond the intriguing thematic substance of the play, Rock the Line is very successful at creating an authentic and intimate atmosphere. Part of this is the tiny Venus space (which somehow always seems to be larger than it really is) that provides the audience an emotional closeness enabled by sheer physical proximity.
But a big part of the atmosphere is provided by the cohesion and authenticity of the ensemble. By the end of Rock the Line it’s hard not to feel like you’re a part of this offbeat crew, waiting for your idol to come and sing. And in an age where it sometimes feels like the bum times just keep on coming, it’s nice to feel like all you need to do is spike up your hair, throw on your leather, and rock the [bleep] on.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with one intermission.