Every day after school, 13-year-old Margot listens to grunge music in a parking lot across from a southern California shopping mall. She smokes the remainders of cigarettes she finds on the ground and indulges in mid-1990s-era teen angst, which has led her to found the GRUNGE club. She is the organization's sole member until, after finding one of Margot's flyers, the clean-cut Jake comes to a meeting. The two begin a relationship built on rock 'n' roll rebellion in the NOLA Project's production of Shiner at Marigny Theatre at the AllWays Lounge.
Frank Oliva's spare set features a desert landscape backdrop, a pay phone and a sign that says, "No littering, loitering, and drinking of alcoholic beverages." When Jake (Alexander Neher) first arrives, Margot (Cecile Monteyne) thinks he may be a "poseur." He doesn't have a single band name written on his sneakers. Although he has never listened to grunge music, Jake wants to change his life. He recently was beaten up by a classmate and is eager to find some sort of camaraderie or relief. At Margot's command, he listens to an entire Nirvana album for the first time, which causes him, he says later, to levitate. The two decide to save their lunch money to buy tickets for an upcoming Nirvana concert, after which they can "die happy."
As grunge kids, Monteyne and Neher are pitch-perfect. Jake comes to Margot as a shy, bullied kid. He stutters. With each almost-grasped word, Neher brings out Jake's inner struggle. Through music and Margot's friendship, Jake embraces his underlying anger. Neher's performance is full of energy, and it's also heartbreaking as Jake chooses a new dark and dangerous path. In black clothes, ripped stockings and flannel, Monteyne is the epitome of a diehard Nirvana fan. Her comedic timing is impressive, and she's able to balance wild-eyed teen exuberance and acerbic delivery. Margot's boldness is mostly a facade, however, and some of Monteyne's best moments come when Margot's vulnerability emerges.
Christian Durso's script is witty and quick; at one point, Jake says puberty makes his "voice crack," to which Margot responds with an update on her body's changes, "I'm bleeding." Punctuated by Nirvana songs at scene changes, the show offers an earnest look at teenage problems such as coping with depression and parents' divorces. In another writer's hands, the teens could have turned into melodramatic tropes, but Jake and Margot sound like real people.
Jake's quick transformation is both mental and physical, and he and Margot switch roles. Toward the end of the show, he wears Margot's leather jacket and begins vandalizing school property. Concerned about her safety, Margot's parents move her to a private school. Kurt Cobain's suicide sends the two into a tailspin, and the show's final moments are frightening and cathartic.
Without being heavy-handed, Shiner uses rock music to broach serious issues, and the show is more than a '90s nostalgia piece. Rock 'n' roll drives the action forward, but there's a surprising amount of depth to it.