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Spring Awakening

Strawdog Theatre Company

German playwright, poet, and cabaret performer Frank Wedekind devoted his artistic life to defying bourgeois conventions. A full century after he began appearing on tiny Munich stages, his willingness to present “the unacceptable” has rarely been surpassed: how many of today’s performance artists would masturbate before an audience? Denounced during his lifetime as a perverted libertine and a threat to public morality, Wedekind routinely ran afoul of the censors and the judicial system yet rarely missed a chance to complicate public discourse about sex, no matter how small his “audience.” Throughout his life he would approach young women and ask, “Are you still a virgin?” then smile a lecherous smile enhanced by ill-fitting dentures.

Like all truly avant-garde work, Wedekind’s is difficult to categorize, interpret, or summarize–perhaps the reason for the formulaic responses his work tends to generate. Though Spring Awakening, written in 1891 when the playwright was only 28, was his first script, his brand of moral and stylistic complexity emerged fully formed. The play’s episodic, impulsive structure, bursting with conflicting styles and idiosyncrasies, represented a defiant response to the reigning naturalists’ insistence on “objectivity.” Its renegade aesthetic and sexual frankness left contemporary audiences bewildered and outraged. At the same time, it helped set a course for modern European drama for decades to come.

The play focuses on three teenagers trying to make sense of their newly forming moral and sexual selves even as the bourgeois gatekeepers of knowledge–schoolmasters, clergy, parents–enforce a code of silence on all “adult” matters. Moritz, a below average student desperate to avoid expulsion, can hardly study because of the cacophony of sexual questions in his brain. Utterly ignorant of the mechanics of sex, he’s so shamed by his own impulses that he believes his first wet dream to be “some kind of internal complaint” and fears he’s dying. His best friend, Melchior, shares the fundamentals of reproduction with him in a 20-page handwritten instructional manual complete with illustrations. To Melchior sex is natural and good, at least in his imagination, and he works overtime to suppress his fury at the Christian order that denies physical pleasure but champions self-sacrifice–even though such sacrifice gives a different pleasure to those who practice it.

Melchior’s mounting contempt for proper society is shared by his friend Wendla, a 14-year-old girl who appears to be a pillar of chaste respectability. But Wendla’s longing for carnal knowledge is as acute as Moritz’s: perversely, she desires a thrashing so that she can experience some sort of intense physical sensation. To his own horror, Melchior readily fulfills her desire–once his sexual impulses are realized, they turn decidedly brutal. Before long he’s convinced himself that self-satisfaction is the only meaningful motivator, and soon he’s raping Wendla in the forest.

Once these youths’ sexuality is awakened and running wild, their lives are promptly destroyed. As Emma Goldman succinctly observed of Wedekind’s characters in Spring Awakening: they must be “sacrificed on the altar of…our sickening morality.” And this is what most reviewers have done, telling us that this is a cautionary tale about teenagers run amok, a 19th-century version of the film Kids. Such a simple, reductive reading would have infuriated Wedekind, to whom conventionality was anathema. Even astute, sensitive Strawdog director Stuart Carden parrots the party line in his director’s note. Although remarking that Wedekind warned against simplistic interpretations of the play, Carden concludes that it’s a “portrait of what it is to be a teenager,” likening the characters to kids humping today in the backseat of daddy’s car.

Fortunately this idea seems to have had little effect on Carden’s largely thoughtful, nuanced production. As the first few minutes of the show make clear–as do the first few pages of the script–the protagonists are not adolescents at all, and not just because they speak in Wedekind’s elevated language (given magnificent resonance in Eric Bentley’s uncredited translation). Moritz, Melchior, Wendla, and the handful of other youths lurching about the play’s periphery are pure literary constructions whose thirst for knowledge and extreme emotional sensitivity are commonly seen in young adults but remain buried in all of us. Wedekind uses his youthful characters as representatives of humanity poised on the brink of corruption; unlike adults who’ve settled into the deadening routines of daily life, they still feel the sting of injustice, hypocrisy, selfishness, and codified ignorance and strive to find ways to overcome them. But their very clear-sightedness in the dissolute world Wedekind creates–a world so convincing it seems no other could exist–leads them to conclude, as Moritz puts it, that “what men do and strive for is folly.” Their revolt against the established moral order is wholly understandable, and the consequences of their revolt inevitably tragic.

Perhaps the most astute aspect of the Strawdog production is its depiction of the characters’ symbolic adolescence. Carden coaxes performances from the ensemble that combine headlong exuberance with measured despair, the kind acquired only after years of disappointment and regret. The actors never try to convince us they’re teenagers; rather they’re conflicted adults clinging to an erratic teenage idealism. As a result, one needn’t waste one’s time trying to believe that guys with thick midriffs or receding hairlines are actually high schoolers. Instead of bothering with an outward show of adolescence, Carden’s actors dive deep to find the human truths in Wedekind’s darkly poetic text.

For the most part, that process is engrossing. Without steamrolling the rarefied language or rhythmic shadings, the dozen actors who portray youths give their characters’ moral strivings the ache of genuine urgency. Tom Hickey, Kyle Hamman, and Shannon Hoag as Moritz, Melchior, and Wendla respectively offer especially sensitive performances, skillfully combining heartfelt naturalism and gentle parody of their characters, whose idealism sometimes renders them buffoonish: Wendla buries her head under her mother’s apron so that she can listen without visible shame to an inadequate explanation of the birds and bees.

But this staging generally falls flat in its depiction of adults, often portrayed in ghoulish extremes. Much of the fault lies with Wedekind, who reduces the adults to one-dimensional types: Professor Thickstick, Rector Sunstroke, Professor Stickytongue. Unfortunately Carden pushes his actors to exaggerate this expressionistic excess rather than working against type, making for a decidedly imbalanced and implausible stage world: these highly intuitive and intelligent kids live in a different universe than the adults. Yet their profoundly human struggles deserve three-dimensional foils.

Fortunately the adult characters hardly appear until the show is about two-thirds over, allowing for a good 90 minutes of engaging, thought-provoking theater. Those 90 minutes burst with contemporary relevance not because teenagers never change but because human beings will always struggle to find truth–even at its most disturbing and destructive–in a world supported by reassuring lies.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dave Brennan.