April 25 SU Drama: Spring Awakening

Photo: Michael Davis

Photo: Michael Davis

SU Drama’s ‘Spring Awakening’ a provocative reminder of the scarring experiences of adolescent sexuality

The rock musical, winner of eight Tony Awards, tackles difficult issues far too dangerous to ignore

By Michael O’Connor

Who would have thought that 1890’s Germany would offer so much insight into 2014 America?

Frank Wedekind’s 1890’s expressionistic drama, Spring Awakening, displays a world in which sex is a taboo subject that is either ignored or treated with shame and fear — a culture in which crippling sexual ignorance and misunderstanding imperils the health and safety of our adolescents.  Perhaps the most striking part of Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s Tony Award winning adaptation of the Wederkind story, which opened Friday at SU Drama, is that we do not have to imagine this world at all: We are living it.

The last 15 years of American history have been rife with cultural and political battles over homosexuality, abortion, sex education, birth control and teen sexuality.  These have become so commonplace that it is easy to forget the impact on our culture and the experience of emerging sexuality.  By reinterpreting Wedekind’s 1890’s expressionistic drama, Spring Awakening (the musical) rekindles the debates and casts them in a new light.  And the musical version of the story shines in its ability to express the inner experiences of the characters.

Unlike many types of musical theater, Spring Awakening does not use music to drive the plot. Indeed, the songs here seem to take place outside of the plot.  The play has some of its characters remain within the action of the plot while others slide into an alternative scene seemingly unattached to the storyline.  This additional musical dimension projects the characters’ interior experiences — providing access to their unspoken hopes, desires, fears, inhibitions, anger and confusion.  Moreover, the music forces the audience to come to grips with the effect that a repressive and oppressive culture has on the children growing up within it.

The play follows a group of young classmates over the course a few tumultuous months, focusing largely on the characters Melchior (Brady Richards), Moritz (Ethan Butler) and Wendla (Delphi Borich).  The play opens with the musical number Mama Who Bore Me, a song delivered by Wendla that through its choreography expresses simultaneously her emerging adult sexuality and her desire to return to childhood. Borich’s singing has an ethereal quality that conveys an unforced innocence, while her body movement in the dance suggests a girl on the threshold of a sexual awakening.

When Wendla finishes the song she asks her mother about her older sister’s pregnancy, but receives only euphemisms about love and marriage in return.  For this young woman, the resulting confusion and ignorance will have devastating effects.

Separately, Moritz and Melchior are in class learning Latin from an authoritarian teacher (through forced memorization of Virgil’s Aeneid).  Moritz, convincingly portrayed by Butler, is laden with a nervous drone of intensity born from years of repression and violence. He fumbles with the Latin and is mocked by the teacher.

Richards’s Melchior exudes the confidence born of intellectual precocity as he tries to protect Moritz through an argument about an alternate interpretation of the line in the epic poem. When the teacher strikes Melchior for his insolence, Richards launches into the song All That’s Known, which lays out Melchior’s desire to build a new world not built upon the oppressive control of its youth. Richards, who appeared to somewhat nervous in this number, quickly gained confidence and strength.  By the end of the production Richards unleashed his voice’s full power and glory.

Melchior assures a guilt-ridden Moritz that the latter’s erotic dreams are perfectly normal and offers to explain everything he has learned through his study of human sexuality.  Moritz cajoles him into putting his thoughts into an essay in order to avoid the shame of having to verbalize the discomforting topic.

Butler’s character launches into the first rollicking number of the play, The Bitch of Living, and the rest of the class quickly joins in. This song nearly perfectly displays the purpose of these musical numbers: Each boy acts out the uncomfortable and uncontrollable eruptions of erotic desire in his daily life.  The boys and girls then collaborate on the songs My Junk and Touch Me, which continue to explore the inner turmoil they must live through as they begin to evolve into sexual maturity.  Their turmoil is especially troubling because their world offers precious little information on sex and provides them no advice on where to turn for support. Even Melchior’s information is inadequate: Its intellectual focus is void of any real understanding of the emotional aspects of love and sex.

The troupe of actors in this SU Drama production deserves to be commended for its fearless presentation in portraying the unfiltered inner thoughts and desires of adolescence. They portray the sexual desires of young men and women through simulated masturbation, simulated sex, and highly sexualized and eroticized dance.  And they do this without caricature, sophomoric deflection, or any of the other ways we often “protect” ourselves while portraying uncomfortable truths about individual sexual experiences.

While the beginning of the play sets up the issue of repression and its effects, there is another significant theme that gets developed in the next sequence.  During a conversation between the girls, Martha (Jodi Snyder) inadvertently reveals that her father physically abuses her and shows the welts to prove it. Martha swears her friend to secrecy, lest she end up like Ilse (Ana Marcu), a childhood playmate who was kicked out of her home and in to the street for revealing abuse from her parents. The somber The Dark I Know Well explores the epidemic of unspoken and unacknowledged violence that undergirds the society through flashbacks to abuses such as Ilse’s incestuous sexual abuse at the hands of her father.  This sequence highlights the devastating effects of the culture of silence and shame.

The remainder of the play unpacks the interpenetration of the themes of violence, sexual repression, shame and fear, aided by songs that provide insight into the personal experiences of the characters.

One of the great strengths of this production is the set design (by Jen Donsky) that allows Director Michael Barakiva to use multiple levels that juxtapose separate actions.  The set is the dilapidated shadow of a house or barn with multiple levels that project the decayed core of bourgeois society in Wedekind’s fin de siècle Germany.  On an upper level Wendla and Melchior talk and end up having sex — a sexual relationship both appear to desire, yet is portrayed in such a way as to raise the issue of consent.  While they are having sex a piece of the set breaks to reveal a hanging cross, which then turns the front of the stage into a church during worship.  The juxtaposition of these two scenes highlights the confusion and danger of sexual exploration in a society under a sexually repressive, religious ideology.

Because of Wendla’s ignorance about sex and conception, their sexual relationship leads to pregnancy — and ultimately Wendla’s death from a botched abortion.  Meanwhile, Moritz has failed out of school, unfairly, due to the school’s manipulation of his grade.  After being beaten by his father and refused the money to emigrate, Moritz then takes his own life.  The resulting investigation turns up Melchior’s essay, and he becomes the scapegoat for Moritz’s suicide.

A show-stopping rendition of Totally Fucked expresses Melchior’s realization that he is going to be unfairly blamed for Moritz’s death.  This song, aided by Andrea Leigh-Smith’s choreography, illustrates the helplessness felt by young people when they realize that they are beholden to the capricious whims of society, with no way of escaping its strict levels of discipline. Leigh-Smith has the actors express their rage through stomping and acrobatic jumping and kicking.  The music mirrors this aggression, driving forward in-step with intense and energetic choreography.  When the song finished, the audience rose to their feet in applause.

This upbeat moment ends quickly, though, as Melchior is confined to reform school and soon experiences the sexualized violence of penal institutions. Wendla’s pregnancy and death occur while Melchior is in reform school and are revealed to him through a concluding scene in a graveyard.

After escaping confinement, Melchior seeks a rendezvous with Wendla but finds only her gravestone.  He prepares to commit suicide but is dissuaded from doing so (by the ghosts of Moritz and Wendla) in the song Those You’ve known — which provides the first real glimpse of Butler’s vocal talents.  In many of his earlier songs, Moritz pushed for intensity and as a result his singing appeared forced and rushed.  But in Those You’ve Known he allowed his talents to shine through with confidence and strength. Coupled with Borich’s angelic delivery, this song provided the emotional release that was needed after the intensity of the play up to this point.

Spring Awakening ends with the full cast performing The Song of Purple Summer, sung after changing from their period costumes to contemporary clothing.  This completed a “bookend” of sorts for the play in that it begins with the actors changing into period costumes on stage as the audience arrives.  (The actors even joke with each other and use their cell phones to take pictures of the audience before the play begins.)

The final bookend slides the play back into our contemporary time and place — which now seems strikingly similar to the German society critiqued in the play.  The audience is forced to ask if that much has changed.  Our world still deals with the legacy of shame that leads to bullying and the suicide of gay teens as well as that of young women tarred as promiscuous. Rape and sexual violence continue to occur at epidemic rates, yet society refuses to acknowledge it in a meaningful way and victims are often silenced by a culture of shame.  Ignorance of sexuality is rampant among teenagers despite the proliferation of sexual material.  This ignorance can lead not only to pregnancy but also sexual assault, manipulation, and sexually transmitted infections.

These are important questions to explore, and I applaud Syracuse Drama for opening up this conversation.  The company’s provocative season-closer is an important theatrical work that deserves to be seen everyone 16 years and older.

Details Box:
What: Spring Awakening, book and lyrics Steven Sater, music by Duncan Sheik, adapted from the play by Frank Wedekind
Who: Syracuse Drama Department
Where: Storch Theater/SU Drama Theater Complex, 820 E. Genesee Street, Syracuse
Performance reviewed: 8 p.m. Friday, April 25, 2014 (opening night)
Remaining performances: Plays through May 10
Length: About 2 hours and 25 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission
Tickets: $19 general admission ($17 Students)
Call: 315-443-3275 or vpa.syr.edu/drama
Family guide: Adult language, adult situations, adult themes, sexual content, nudity

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