Let’s talk about sex. Let’s talk about sex plus rock and roll. Let’s talk about sex, rock and roll and often censored late Victorian German plays. We can call it sex, dregs, and rock and roll.
We can also call it “Spring Awakening,” the 2006 musical that had a very successful Broadway run and managed to win 8 Tony Awards in the process. It is a very relevant play despite the source material being more than a century old, and the current production at Kensington Arts Theater shows why this story struck a nerve with modern audiences.
At the turn of the twenty first century, we worry that we may be too up front about sex - we have coming of age films where losing one’s virginity is the only object of the story. At the turn of the twentieth century, we had the exact opposite – a very rigid and highly conservative Victorian world where sex was simply not discussed in public.
Playwright Frank Wedekind was a free spirit of that age and the point of his 1890 play was about what happens to teenagers in such a stifling environment with no honest adult guidance. His answer - the kids make it up on their own as they go, often with tragic consequences.
So we have Wendla, a girl who is no longer a child, still being told that babies come via the stork. Foolish girl – they come from Amazon.com like everything else. We have Moritz, who is having a difficult adolescence that includes the danger of flunking from the autocratic school system and facing his very exacting parents. And we have Melchior, the romantic rebel who is actually a good student but sees how the system is failing them and decides to fight back. There is more than a little hint of Nietzsche in Melchior, but these are kids in a vast and impersonal system – how can they fight back?
The book by Steven Sater sticks close to the Wedekind play, but his lyrics and the music by Duncan Sheik are very contemporary. This is primarily a rock based score, with lyrics not afraid to use adult language. We touch a lot of taboo subjects in passing here: masturbation, pre-marital sex, child abuse, abortion, suicide, homosexuality, even a hint of S&M. Typical teenage experiences, and if these topics still raise eyebrows today, imagine what people thought about Wedekind’s 1890 play which was very frank about all these subjects too. No wonder the script was often censored.
Director Emily Zickler keeps everything moving nicely. She reverses the setting of the play from other productions I’ve seen. There the school was all encompassing and set pieces were brought in to suggest the outdoors. Here the set by Anna Britton emphasizes the outdoors, the spring in nature, and set pieces are moved around to make the interior world of these characters claustrophobic.
The cast is strong. Emily Dey is all innocence and curiosity as Wendla, while Harrison Smith is a flustered bundle of nerves as the ne’er-do-well Moritz. They can be quite funny at first until the plot takes their characters into darker area.
Ryan Alan Jones as Melchior provides an interesting twist to the character. He is more than a little bit cocky at times and that works well. Melchior can come off as a little too good to be true – a smart and charismatic rebel who everyone admires, but here we see how he plays a part in his own downfall. All the adults in this world are played by Marni Ratner Whelen and Chris Gillespie and they seem to be having a great time as the conspiring teachers and autocratic parents. Only Whelen as Melchior’s mother shows us an adult who seems to listen to her own child and treat him as a human being, although she has some odd views about Goethe’s Faust.
The one caveat to the production was the sound on opening night. There were times when the orchestra was either too loud or the singers not miked loudly enough. It was no problem when the ensemble sang, but it was hard to hear several of the solo singers, and this is a show where the dialogue and lyrics are critically important. Hopefully that issue can be quickly fixed – indeed, on opening night, the sound for second act was much better than the first half, but still not problem free.
Is it any surprise that the period when Wedekind was writing his often censored plays was also the period Freud was developing dream analysis and the Oedipus complex? It was a society too concerned with rote memory and not critical thinking, and with strict discipline even while boys were wondering why they had those strange dreams at night.
Today we treat sex more openly but turn it either into smirk filled comedies or heavy handed cautionary tales. Meanwhile, adolescence remains a very rough period and teenagers still face a slew of problems, so have we really progressed that much.
Mocovox Entertainment Critic