Those attracted to Verse Chorus Verse in hopes of seeing an exploration of the life of the late Kurt Cobain may find themselves in for a surprise, as the work focuses little on the actual life of the grunge idol. Rather, the play mixes fact and fiction, blurring the distinction between the two, creating instead a fictional story line and characters, all of whom center around Cobain’s suicide.
At the center of the play is Polly (Lorraine Rodriguez Reyes), a character inspired by the kidnapping story that inspired the Nirvana song “Polly.” In the real life story a fourteen-year-old girl was kidnapped in 1987 by a man named Gerald Friend outside a punk show in Tacoma; the girl was then raped and physically tortured by Friend. In the play’s fictional storyline, Polly became friends with Cobain and was even with him the night that he died.
The play opens with Polly’s abduction outside a rock concert and then cuts to the twentieth anniversary of Cobain’s death (the play is set in the future in 2014). A journalist named Moira (Kristy Powers), hounds Polly for an interview for her webzine. Polly’s lack of response shows her lack of desire to revisit her past, avoiding perhaps both the recollection of her brutal kidnapping as well as whether or not she has any information regarding Cobain’s mysterious suicide.
Polly lives as an iconic follower of Seattle’s grunge scene, with fans and musicians looking towards her as a connection to an era that is now idealized. She catches the sexual attention of young up-and-coming musician Garrett Leskin (Michael Bryan Hill), who is touted as being the reincarnation of Kurt Cobain. His devotion to his predecessor leads him to declaring his reopening of the mystery of Cobain’s suicide, however his squeaky clean persona, optimistic disposition and seeming lack of interest and experience in even hard liquor (he coughs and chokes over a sip of whiskey) makes him seem a far cry from the drug-addled Cobain.
Perhaps for both the sake of added plot momentum (as well as avoiding criticism from those entangled in Cobain’s real life), the circumstances and mystery of the alleged suicide have been completely changed for the play (the name Courtney Love is never once mentioned in the script). In the play’s version of events rock has-been Mason Dwyer (Michael Mallard) is suspected to have caused Cobain’s death.
While he once garnered acclaim as the former front man of the band Yeti, Dwyer has now become a laughable goth rocker in his band Lords of Semen. He clearly feels bitterness over what he lost, having only condescension and snideness to show to newcomer Garrett. He sees the fact that his former guitarist Terry Klug (Joshua Coomer) now plays in his band as the ultimate betrayal. As Garrett gets closer and closer to trying to seduce Polly he comes closer to trying to coax the truth about Cobain’s death out of her.
The 2014 storyline is intercut with scenes from Polly’s abduction and subsequent rape and torture, showing her to eventually become dependent and connected to Friend. While the play packages itself as being a play about Cobain, it in the end becomes a play about one woman’s recovery from a trauma both physically and psychologically scarring. (The character Terry aptly observes in the play, “This is really Polly’s story, but you’ll say it’s Kurt’s story.”)
Overall, Verse Chorus Verse succeeds in being an evocative and compelling work, showing layered characters. Its strength lies partly in the strong performances from the cast, namely Lorraine Rodriguez who depicts Polly’s turmoil as believable, as well as Joshua Coomer as Terry, and Michael Mallard who shines as the acerbic rock has been who finally pulls back his mask to expose vulnerability. Costume designer Jennie West Alexander dresses the cast well, creating uniquely structured Grunge influenced ensembles.
Script-wise however, the multiple story lines and concerns add up to a somewhat fragmented whole. At times, Colburn’s script offers a touching look at those left abandoned by the death of an era more appealing than the present day, but the playwright should have explored this vein further, especially in a day and age in which the music industry is only a shadow of its former self.