Espionage to Empowerment: CTC’s ‘Agent 355’ Gives Punk Rock History Lesson

If the Revolutionary War were a musical genre, what genre would it be?

According to Preston Max Allen and Jessica Kahkoska: punk rock.

Allen and Kahkoska are the creators of Chautauqua Theater Company’s third New Play Workshop this season, Agent 355. The show takes audiences back in time to the era of the American Revolution and frames the narrative through a punk rock concert. Agent 355 opens at 8 p.m. tonight in Bratton Theater, and finishes CTC’s summer season, running through Sunday.

From a thematic standpoint, the marriage of punk to the time period of George Washington and his contemporaries isn’t as much of a leap as it might seem.

“On a historical level, (the punk genre) has so many thematic overlaps with the historical moment of the show,” Kahkoska said. “Punk embraces some of the themes of anarchy and rebellion, and pushing back against corrupt systems. A lot of those ideologies also fueled the American Revolution.”

The show opens with a kind of roll call for the cast, as each character reads a quote from a historic document before welcoming the audience to “Early American Heroes: How the Nation’s First Spies Won the Revolution,” and launching into song.

As the play surges on, it tells the story of the Culper Ring — a grassroots intelligence group that served George Washington and the American patriots during the Revolutionary War — through the lens of six real historical women.

The story focuses on the account of the mysterious “Agent 355,” an unidentified female Culper Ring operative. Each one of the six female characters could have ostensibly been Agent 355, Kahkoska said, and the agent’s true identity is still unconfirmed today.

But more so than discovering the identity of Agent 355, the play is about revealing and reveling in the many unsung roles that women played in the American Revolution. 

“Yes, there’s the mystery of, ‘Who was this woman?’ ” Allen said. “But the show is less about trying to solve mysteries that were made impossible by how little was recorded, and more about trying to elevate the stories that do exist.”

According to Allen and Kahkoska, the play shares an exciting and somewhat-unknown story of espionage and intrigue set to a percussive punk rock soundtrack.

But while they’re excited to tell the stories of these historical women, both creators said the show was just as much about uncovering and celebrating the stories of those who haven’t historically had a voice, as it is about Agent 355.

“It seems to be a show about the Culper spy ring and the American Revolution, but I think the heartbeat of the play is actually about the systems that place more value on certain types of histories than others,” Kahkoska said.

Considering the thematic similarities between the political revolution of America’s independence and the musical revolution of punk rock, Allen and Kahkoska said the songs and scenes of Agent 355 were a perfect fit.

“Speaking historically, women would not have been allowed to express the kind of anger that punk allows them to express, which is exactly why we’ve incorporated punk into this story,” Allen said.

Both Allen and Kahkoska said they hope to engage a wide audience with the NPW, which is sponsored in part by the Roe Green Foundation. For those potentially put off by the punk music, they said the show will provide plenty of stylistic variety as well as a compelling story alongside the songs.

Above all else, Allen said he wants to pique people’s interest.

“We want people to think, ‘What else am I missing? What other incredible stories have been kept from me?’ ” he said.

Tags : Chautauqua Theater CompanyNPWPerforming and Visual Arts

The author Duard Headley

Duard Headley is from tiny Yellow Springs, Ohio, and studies journalism and American studies at Miami University in Ohio. Coming hot off the heels of performing in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream last summer, he is excited to cover theater at Chautauqua, merging his love for writing and theater into one experience. In his free time, he enjoys acting, reading, and staring wistfully into the distance as though he were deep in thought (He usually isn’t).