Santa Maria Sun / Art
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 52
PCPA Theaterfest explores coming of age in a repressed society in 'Spring Awakening'
BY JOE PAYNE
Spring Awakening was originally penned in 1891 by Frank Wedekind, and was quickly banned for its matter-of-fact depiction of pubescent students caught between their biology and their suppressive culture. Wedekind dubbed the play a “tragedy of childhood,” and dedicated it to the parents and teachers he so vilified in the story. The message was lost on the aggressively repressed German culture of the time, and it continued to be met with resistance even later in the U.S.
Over a century later, the play was adapted into a rock musical with book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik. Though the play does not update the time and place of the story, it breathes a more modern voice into the tale that was already ahead of its time. The original Broadway cast production of Spring Awakening earned a Grammy award and eight Tony Awards. PCPA, truly adept at choosing wonderful plays to produce, is flexing a bit of its muscle with this production due to the adult nature of the dialogue and scenarios. That’s right: This production is most appropriate for audiences 17 and older, so don’t bring the kids.
The show starts with an innocent enough scene. The young Wendla (acting intern Casey Canino) puts on a dress from younger days, prancing about, enjoying the still graspable feelings of childhood. Everything shifts when Wendla’s mother enters the scene. Played by PCPA equity artist Elizabeth Stuart, Wendla’s mother immediately begins casting a shameful shadow over the girl for wearing kids clothes while she is clearly “in bloom.” Wendla begs her mother to tell here where babies come from. Too old to believe in the stork, Wendla is looking for answers, but isn’t satisfied with her mother’s cryptic answer of “A baby comes when [a] woman loves her husband … completely.”
Then the music begins. We are given a glimpse into the young people’s inner struggles through the music. “Mama Who Bore Me” features Wendla and a group of her peers, calling out with frustration for just a small bit of understanding of who they are and where they come from. As their musical interlude wraps up, young men march into the scene in orderly lines led by a straight-backed teacher (PCPA equity artist Andrew Philpot). This is where we meet the two frustrated young men pitted against the authoritative “parentocracy.”
Acting intern Lucas Blair depicts Mortiz, a terrified young man who can barely stay current with his difficult studies, let alone make sense of his overtly sexual dreams. The poor boy is the subject of his teacher’s disdain and constant attacks, but, thankfully, he has a friend who comes to his rescue. Melchior, played by conservatory student Benjamin McNamara, helps his friend by launching into a well-reasoned argument about proper Latin verb conjugation. Unfortunately, he is too smart for his own good, at least in his teacher’s eyes. And his teacher never spares the rod.
It’s in these grim moments of abuse that the boys get their turn to sing. Their music is angry as well, but in a way much more akin to punk rock, complete with air kicks and head banging. Their inner turmoil and youthful passion explode through leaps and bounds accentuated by crimson lighting and a grinding score. And then, within moments, they are back in the painfully quite rows of seats, a favorite of fascist control-freaks no matter the culture.
The dichotomy in the play is accentuated well by the fact that every adult figure, male or female, is played solely by Philpot and Stuart, respectively. Both actors are more than capable of conveying several characters—often within seconds of each other—and they convey the varying levels of authority that the youthful characters are set against, including conniving teachers and exasperated parents. The rest of the cast, being youthful teens, is appropriately comprised of either conservatory students or acting interns. From the main characters to the ensemble actors, the young talent finds a perfect outlet for raw energy, which makes the play all the more poignant.
The synergy between the music and lighting design, handled by Callum Morris and Jennifer Zornow, respectively, is fabulous. It gives a real glimpse into the inner world of the youthful, tormented characters. The costumes are indicative of the time era. The boys’ collared shirts and ties, and their crisp pants and suspenders are all the trappings of a straight-laced culture. Clad in stockings, the girls don floral-print dresses with long sleeves, which hide the welts left by abusive fathers.
As the plot progresses, we learn the folly of simplistic ideologies, and that suspenders can be undone and dresses hiked up. Each character struggles with authority and culture, feelings and bodies. The cast conveys these growing pains with skill, handling the material with care and style.
Arts Editor Joe Payne likes to think we’ve progressed a little. Contact him at email@example.com.
VIDEO COURTESY OF PCPA THEATERFEST VIA YOUTUBE.COM