Ever wonder what it would be like to live in a world wherein people nearly 17 years of age still had no idea where babies came from; an existence in which teenage boys were tormented by dreams of ladies’ legs (and God knows how they’d even have the wherewithal to imagine what they looked like since they were pretty much covered up 24/7 to the point of probable musings of hair adorning them just as their own), where any kind of sexual discovery under the heavy hand of religion, “decency” or proper education could get you maligned, banned or exterminated in some way?!? No, we are not musing some faraway foreign land; forget and calm yourselves concerning any atavistic and overly conservative piece of bigoted bullshit legislation. We’re talkin’ good ol’ fashioned Germany in the modern-olden days of the late 1800s (1891 to be exact) via the good works of Defy Theatre and their latest production of Spring Awakening.
The teenage musical opens with Wendla Bergman in a decidedly childlike dress that is deemed forever inappropriate by her mother as she sings, “Mama Who Bore Me” a song dedicated to the daughter/mother paradigm of knowledge ostensibly passed (or rather suppressed) from one generation to the next—Really more like musings pulled out of the other to half-assed (and impending deleterious effects). She dreamily primps and preens in the mirror along with regarding her physique not so much as a modern-day teenager but from a sideward stance reminiscent of a pregnancy.
“You can’t imagine I still believe in the stork,” she will ask incredulously as she pines to know more about the state of her sister at the dawning of the birth of Wendla’s first niece or nephew. Sadly she receives hardly a hint of information from the uptight matriarch to the point where I can only employ the dual meaning of the word “bore” in the back of my mind as this is a conversation getting nowhere fast at the behest of Wendla’s tight lipped “Mama”!—(Any and all various and sundry forms of puns intended…)
Moritz Steifel has a harrowing fear of being imperfect, echoed and empowered by a bellicose father, and ever shaming grandfather from beyond the grave. He is also plagued by dreams of a woman’s legs though how in heck he would ever know what they looked like in such timely environs one never knows. (Tentacles perhaps—Hairy or otherwise?)–and really DID women shave back then, and seriously just why is no one asking why the look of a woman’s leg would be anything not beyond his ken is beyond me! Regardless, Moritz is painfully stressed the likes of which I’ve never seen in a 20th/21st century teen. Why anyone would ever believe the olden days were simpler and less pressure-filled, particularly in light of the fact that humanity was all the more connected with nature as their rustic reward is beyond me. (After all Does not the meditative croaking of the bullfrog and the chirping of any hale and hearty, unsuspecting katydid heighten the senses and distract one less rather than more in the realm of sensuality?—Hence our reference to “spring awakening”s! Really, nature is a most sensually provoking creature rife with all manner of rosebud and stamen!) Regardless, Moritz will confide in our soon-to-be anti-hero Melchior Gabor who will instruct him via drawings, and ostensibly poetic scrawlings somewhat like a premature and decidedly artistic (though much younger and dramatically more testosterone-laden) Dr. Ruth Westheimer. (If nothing else, the nationality is correct.) Other than that, their shared language is something notable the two have in common!
Melchior himself, is totally, and refreshingly anti-establishment. It is he who sees through the veil of religion and petty social convention. Girls want to be with him (though to do what–they are not exactly sure but they know it would conceivably encompass more than talking) and boys want to be him. He is indeed the progressive voice of the future as all proceed in an attempt at finding their way like blinded coal miners in a caved in tunnel until they realize the miner bird will die as surely as their dreams to take such kindred flight…
The climax of the piece involves Melchior and Wandla succumbing to their carnal curiosities: his ripped, sinewy body (perhaps even a little too dramatically so for a teenager of said generation bereft of crunch machines and squat videos) poised over her in most passionate yet somewhat youthful, perfunctory fashion… (regardless, kudos to the lighting designer Michael Kozanchenko—also our producer–for highlighting and low-lighting all his uh…nooks and crannies…)
Martha Bessell is abused, regularly to the point of scarring on her arms, “When I have a child, I’ll let them be their own person,” echo some of her fellow classmates at the discovery. While the sentiment enthralls me, I cannot help but wax certain that many an aspiring parent declared the self-same sentiment, even back then. Yet can’t help but wonder in more or less outraged fashion why it’s taken so long—until THIS parental generation for mothers and fathers to even begin to make good on that claim en masse.
Oh and remember what I said about Moritz Seifel? Well, when it comes to sexual tension of the most tediously terrestrial kind, Georg Zirschnitz has got him beat by a long shot to a perpetually furrowed brow and hunched posture, the likes of which the hunchback of Notre Dame would feel superior (and really, why not?–as he, at the very least, has the privilege of entering said “dame” every day and ringing her bell…) But no, all jokes aside as said posture, reminiscent of an old man retaining a stomach ache or provokingly, perpetual case of priapism are the only things to which one might hearken. At a certain point, during the equivalent of a musical montage, Georg and his piano teacher start rollin’ all over each other but I’m thinking it is just his imagination as his tense countenance persists throughout the remainder of the piece and it is a musical montage after all; nothing veritable ever comes of those…
Oh and last but not least, and lest we forget, the special stirrings of Hanschen and Ernst: two schoolmates we might surmise are gay. Only at the end of our story do they actualize their deeper-than-friendship-type sensibilities to some of the most fortuitous and happy-ending-allusory, yet ironic effects. However, when one truly thinks on it, it is they who people might just surmise are friends unless they were to look in on them in their most intimate moments. As a result, they will never be kept from one another in the most private of senses—as long as no one catches them in the most intimate of moments…
All in all, these high school kids are totally screwed up. Nobody knows anything, and the adults think they’re keeping these teens knowledgeable in the ways of bookishness via fomenting ignorance at every turn. Not the most original of stories I suppose but it certainly hits home in all manner of illustrative designs pertaining to the deleterious effects of the timelessness of ignorance and religious overbearance.
Overall, a decidedly harrowing, thought provoking, maddening to toe tapping night of theatre!
What makes the musical even more astounding is that it is based on the actual play of the same name, written in 1891 by Frank Wedekind; as a result, one has the privilege of obtaining a rather first-hand account/eye witness newsish vantage to the whole thing via the musical. i.e. these truly were the concerns teens faced back then, not just the manner in which they would have been interpreted by way of the likes of Duncan Shiek and Steven Sater all the way face forward in 2006 (the year in which the production premiered).
The Music itself is good enough but it also kind of sounds like every other musical written after the dawn of the 21st century. Perhaps it would merit a second or third listening to distinguish it from all the others but no singular tune or theme particularly stands out in my mind.
Scenic design by May Mitchell is evocative of all things natural and bucolic: read pure and beautiful, as the perfect backdrop for the theme of ‘doin’ what comes naturally’ at the hands of all ironic and prophylactic measures to ensure this never actually happens. Lighting design by Michael Kozachenko gives radiance and shadow to all that should be illuminated and hid and some that should just not! Costume design by Ruoxuan Li is deliciously evocative of an Edward Gorey illustration. And the entire crafting of the production by Michael Kozachenko overall is seamless.
My only vexation would have to be with the Godawful mics adorning each and every performer’s forehead. What in heck was THAT?!?! Were they supposed to be suggestive of the opening of the third eye; a merging of the 21st century with the 1800s/19th? At first glance I surmised someone’s wig was slipping, then realized swiftly and adeptly thereafter that there were few-to-no wigs and determined that the positioning was not only distracting, but exceedingly laughable. The reasoning given for this following the performance’s conclusion was that the sound is ostensibly better. However I was hardly bowled over by it any more than I have been by any and all professional organizations who know how to place their body mics conspicuously and, more to the point, *correctly*! Frankly, in such a small theatre, I’m not even sure why it mattered. Back as far as the 70s: 1870s, 1970s or otherwise, the concept of mics would be superfluous.
Casting and execution of said cast’s dramatic and musical choices (distracting forehead mics notwithstanding) are most magnificent! Standout roles and performers include: Garrett Ross as Melchior Gabor who plays the part to matter-of-fact magnetism. Lauren Shippen portraying a most persistent Wendla Bergman is both earnest and enchanting. Jon Ash’s depiction of Moritz Stiefel is executed in a most hauntingly harrowing fashion. Alex Allen as the torturously tumescent Georg Zirschnitz is both sidesplitting and sympathy inducing. Monica Ricketts as Ilse, Moritz’ long lost childhood friend, who has chosen to live the life of a Bohemian, only appears in two scenes to lead him away from his humdrum, yet hellish existence. But suffice it to say: I’m pretty sure she has a *bionic* voice the likes of which could sandblast houses and peel paint off walls from ten blocks away—in only the most complimentary of senses. (Yes, yes Lindsey Wagner would be exceedingly envious!) So if you need your house or walls sandblasted/de-painted in the most euphonious of fashions, I’m sure the producer could give you her information. Bryce Charles as Martha Bessel is heartbreakingly vulnerable and thought-provoking in all the right places. Last but not least Melissa Strauss and Bradley Kuykendall as the Adult Female and Adult Male, set the tone most aptly for the oppression so illustrative of the period in question. Strauss’ stifled alarm and evasiveness as Wendla’s Mama upon attempting to dodge the baby/stork question is most deliciously vexing to behold. Bradley Kuykendall as the boy’s school master is decidedly threateningly portrayed along with his depiction of Moritz’ pugnacious, no-margin-for error father. My only difficulty at first was that I could not always tell when each of these adults was playing an alternate character–but only at first. Perhaps if they had worn varying hats, vests or even glasses it might have been of some assistance. Overall however, a fine, compelling, and thought provoking night of theatre!
Defy Theatre’s Spring Awakening runs at the NoHo Arts Center until September 19th!
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