Reviewed by Bob Verini
Forest of Arden and Deaf West Theatre at Inner City Arts
Through Nov. 9
Upon leaving the opening night performance of Deaf West and The Forest of Arden’s co-production Spring Awakening – Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s 2006 rock musical about sexual awakening/repression in 19th century European teens, based on the 1891 play by Fank Wedekind — I posted a blissful Tweet announcing that people should see this “beautiful” show, and I stand by that assessment. It is wonderful to see actual kids cast as actual kids: Austin McKenzie, the soulful protagonist Melchior, is barely out of high school himself in his first professional engagement. Their youthful energy fills the Inner City Arts black box theater to bursting, and they perform the score exceptionally well, aided by musical director Jared Stein and his ensemble.
Still, as the production, directed by Michael Arden, moved earnestly along, I kept wondering why it seemed to be touching all the bases but wasn’t touching my heart. Why, I asked myself, was I not appalled at the ridiculing of slow, underappreciated Moritz (Daniel L. Durant)? Why didn’t I feel anger at the railroading of Melchior for his crude attempts at sex ed, or grief for the maternal (and maternity) predicaments of gentle Wendla (Sandra Mae Frank)? I was sure it couldn’t be resistance to, or overfamiliarity with, the material: After six or seven productions and endless playing of the score, I’ve never failed to be stirred. I’m listening to it now, in fact, and getting the usual chills.
So what was it about the spectacle at Inner City Arts that seemed so – well, so sentimental — so lacking in anger?
In any of its versions, Spring Awakening is the story of a generation imprisoned within their minds and bodies. A cadre of promising young people, victimized by societal backwardness, parental prurience, and above all fundamentalist religion, lashes out to make desperate, and mostly disastrous, choices.
Ordinarily this is readily staged, as the characters are granted only two means of self-expression: strangled speech and Sater and Sheik’s emo-drenched anthems. Emotionally and literally, they are hamstrung. (In Michael Mayer’s electrifying original staging, the boys were so repressed and frustrated that they were forced to reach into their tight pants and pull out hand mikes. It was a potentially campy touch that somehow felt very right.)
At the same time, the mood benefits from the tremendous tension between the kids’ pubescent physical awkwardness, and the explosions of arms and legs on the rare occasions when they manage to cut loose. They are, in short, 19th century pressure cookers ever threatening to explode. Here, though, the temperature is lowered and the lid kept on.
Deaf West’s melding of hearing and non-hearing performers, often through double- or parallel-casting, has enhanced many a production. Big River brought the American classic Huck Finn to greater life for every viewer. The main character in Pippin has two sides anyway, the idealistic and the ambitious, so artistic bifurcation only made him more real. And the issues raised by deafness in a hearing world were brilliantly dramatized in 2012’s Cyrano, where the very multiplicity of people’s communication options proved integral to the story.
The effect is different in Spring Awakening, in which the repressed, inarticulate characters are granted four – count ‘em, four — means of communication: spoken words; sung lyrics; signing; and projections. (Key phrases keep artfully appealing against the black back wall.) All of this self-expression serves to remove the psychic barriers that the musical counts on to achieve its effects.
With feelings constantly broadcast everywhere, a pressure-cooker ambience can’t help but be undercut. Far from holding back their feelings, the kids never stop sharing them, reaching out to send their energies into the ozone. The very act of signing creates voluptuous stage pictures, hands caressing the air (and themselves) beatifically. When Melchior and Wendla meld as a couple, to mention one of the turning points which fall kind of flat here, it doesn’t feel like the inevitable result of desperation. It’s just one more occasion to move.
Arden seems to want to use the gap created by difference to inform the story, but the effort feels imposed and inconsistent. (When two deaf characters sign a furious argument, while no translation is provided for those who don’t know ASL, the thematic statement doesn’t relate to the whole.) And while Arden certainly creates some beautiful stage pictures, he also makes some questionable choices, such as keeping the adult antagonists (Troy Kotsur, Daniel Marmion and Natacha Roi) too often on the sidelines rather than mixing it up in the midst of the kids. The threat they pose is consistently kept at a remove.
Then there’s the eye-rolling finale, as a Valhalla of flowers is revealed upstage and all the youngsters are swept up as if in the Rapture, pointedly leaving the grownups behind. Does Arden really take the sophomoric position that youth alone qualifies someone – not just the innocent ones, but even the predators – to enter Paradise, while everyone over 30 is banned? I suspect that he does, and that if original author Frank Wedekind (or even Sater and Sheik themselves) were asked whether their characters deserve to go up up up up to the Heaviside Layer, a few choice one-syllable words might well be uttered.
Late in the show, the amoral, pansexual Hanschen (Joseph Haro) successfully manages to seduce naïve Ernst (Joshua Castille) and discovers, to his surprise, that there’s actually some genuine affection going on. Hanschen is not fooled, though: “Oh, I’m gonna wound you…/Oh, you’re gonna be my bruise.” As staged by Arden, the boys are sitting atop an upright (no pun intended) with Eric’s speaking voice (Daniel David Stewart) at the keyboard; as Hanschel and Eric snog, a hand comes down and Stewart is brought into the clinches. What should be a chilling moment of ambivalent sexuality suddenly becomes a campy menage a trois, coarsely trolling for laughs. Which it gets, because this cast is highly skillful.
But again and again, this estimable Spring Awakening sacrifices moments of fear and dread for effects that are sentimental at best. My opening night Tweet, touting the work, also asserted that this revival “does pain and healing better than rage,” and I stand by that too. The characters may sing of bruises and wounds, but neither they nor we feel them as we might do. Or one could say, as we ought to do.
Forest of Arden and Deaf West Theatre at Inner City Arts, 720 Kohler St., Dwntwn.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Nov. 9. (818) 762-2998, deafwest.org