Addison — In an early 20th-century essay, philosopher and activist Emma Goldman wrote that the modern drama is “the strongest and most far-reaching interpreter of our deep-felt dissatisfaction” with the drudgery of a tyrannical social order. She cites Frank Wedekind’s Spring’s Awakening as one of the plays that helps to disseminate the “radical thought” of sexual education through its biting social commentary and stinging satire. She goes on to praise Wedekind for laying bare “the shams of morality.”
Wedekind wrote Spring’s Awakening, his first play, in 1891 in Wilhelmine Germany. Culturally corresponding to Victorianism in the United Kingdom, Wilhelminism (named for Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last German Emperor and King of Prussia) is marked by conservative morality and a rigid social order. It is also a period of heavy industrialization and political turmoil. Against the puritanical decorum of the time, Wedekind sought to promote all kinds of liberation, including sexual, by way of education. No surprise that the play strirred controversy.
That a theater company would produce such a heady, demanding 19th-century play deserves respect. That it would do such an outstanding job, and with such young actors, demands high praise.
Artistic Director Becca Johnson-Spinos’ skill, first in being able to fill 38 difficult roles and then being able to pull consistently compelling performances from the 17 cast members, many of whom are still teenagers, is a marvel to behold. She directs Outcry Theatre’s production of Spring’s Awakening, which continues its run at the Addison Theatre Centre’s Studio Theatre through July 15.
In case it still needs to be said (as if “19th-century German play” isn’t enough!), this is not an easy play. And be warned: the subtitle of Spring’s Awakening is A Tragedy of Childhood. The play—which was the basis for the 2006 Tony-winning musical by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater—lives up to its name.
In general, the plot revolves around the societal pressures that burden children. Specifically, it involves rape, suicide, child abuse, and a botched abortion, all while coming to terms with adolescent sexuality (both homosexual and heterosexual), including scenes of masturbation (both solo and group) as well as sadomasochism.
Running three-and-a-half hours, the play intentionally leaves the audience feeling battered. It’s a bit like Dead Poets Society, but on laudanum.
This production uses Eric Bentley’s 1960 translation, so the language is sometimes stilted and almost always difficult. But the actors are able to make the language their own, which is no small feat since the text is rife with references to Faust, Schiller, and St. Agnes that might be lost on many people today.
Mira Agustin is unnervingly believable as the 14-year-old naïf Wendla, who suffers the undeserved punishment of death for her ignorance about where babies come from. Agustin handles well the nuances of being both lost in her innocence while also painfully curious about what it’s like to be beaten.
Equally superb is Jake Blakeman as Melchior, the intellectual who unravels the mysteries of sex on his own, partly through books, partly through illustrations, and partly by observing nature. Having learned this forbidden knowledge about the birds and the bees, Melchior willingly shares it with his friend Moritz by writing a scientific essay on sexual reproduction.
The role of Melchior is morally messy. Wedekind writes the character both as someone who comes to understand the workings of nature and sex but who also abuses that knowledge by raping Wendla. Melchior, however, is not a bad-seed character who coldly justifies his crime. Instead, he accepts the full brunt of his guilt. Blakeman admirably navigates the role.
The disturbed Moritz is portrayed persuasively by Bryce Lederer. For a character that can easily become cartoonishly maudlin, Lederer plays him sympathetically, though slightly unhinged. The audience gets the sense that his cry, “Oh, this sense of shame!” is everything in its underplayed way.
Andy Stratton as classmate Hänschen is also worth mentioning for his high level of professionalism, as evidenced by his skill in handling two very important, difficult scenes, one of which is an uncomfortably long masturbation scene.
Wedekind’s portrayal of adults leans more toward caricature, as in the Board Room scene, where the school administration debates opening a window. (Spoiler alert: no windows are opened.) The parents don’t get off easily either. Jenna Caire as Wendla’s prudish mother Mrs. Bergmann, herself a victim of miseducation and naivety, struggles with Wendla’s curiosity and yet comes to suffer for her (unforgiveable?) desire to shelter her daughter. Melchior’s mother Mrs. Gabor, skillfully played by Autumn McNamara, serves as the story’s anchor, but even her enlightened views gets quashed in the end.
The set design by Bradley Gray captures the tension between the natural world and the social order. In Gray’s design, nature encroaches upon the domesticated, interior world of the characters. The way that the two zones overlap also help to show how they are both in equal measure out of place in their proximity to one another and worlds apart. Ultimately, the social order reasserts itself, triumphing over any ground gained by nature.
Wedekind’s script contains only barebones stage directions, which makes Becca Johnson-Spinos’ staging all the more inspired. One among many possible examples is the intimate love scene between Stratton’s Hänschen and Ernst, played by Ryder Houston. In Johnson-Spinos’ hands, it becomes a tender scene with staging reminiscent of Renaissance works depicting grape-picking putti.
Choreographed movement, from stylized maypole dances to the physical theater of Stomp, help transition between scenes. Interludes include live original music by cast member Logan Beutel, whose simple guitar themes help set the mood as well as offer the audiences’ ears a break from a very wordy script. It’s also a nice contrast to Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring—another work of art that caused riots at its opening—which plays before the lights go down and during intermission.
The understated sound design is by Jason Johnson-Spinos, who also plays several roles in the production. Both the lighting design by Hannah Winkler and costume design by Gabrielle Grafrath are also well done.
Though it’s not clear if it is a costume/shoe/stage problem or a choreography/movement issue, but often the actors’ footsteps result in unnecessarily loud stomps that sometimes drown out lines.
Given that sexual education curriculum remains a hotly debated topic today, it seems we’re no nearer to the sexual liberation that Wedekind advocated for through his didactic, moralizing play. All the more reason to see Outcry’s production of Spring’s Awakening.