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THEATER REVIEW | "Spring Awakening" by blank slate theatre: Extreme intimacy
Even if you feel like you just saw Spring Awakening seven months ago when Theater Latté Da blew the roof off the place with their Ivey Award-winning production, you still owe it to yourself to see the powerful new production being put on by blank slate theatre. It's the same musical, but radically different. If you've never seen Spring Awakening, then blank slate's production is a perfect introduction.
This tale of the sexual misadventures of a group of teenagers in a repressed 19th century German town sadly continues to be all too relevant to modern audiences. Keeping information about sex from young people doesn't mean that they won't have sex. It just means they're twice as likely to get themselves in trouble by having no idea what they're doing. These young people all revolt against the oppression of ignorance and misinformation and secrets in their own ways. Some of them survive. Some of them don't. But we learn from, and can be inspired by, all of them.
Blank slate theatre works out of the basement of the First Baptist Church in St. Paul. The production of Spring Awakening is being done promenade style, which means although there are chairs around the edges of the space for those who need a break, the audience spends most of its time standing, and shifting from place to place as the action of the play moves around them. The confined, shared space and low ceilings means the choreography, by Bailey Anderson, can't swing too wide or fly too high, but that doesn't lessen its intensity one bit. In fact, the extreme intimacy between actors and audience is one of the many things that makes blank slate's production work so well.
At the performance I attended, director Adam Arnold prepared the audience ahead of time: "If an actor is coming toward you, move." Not only did the audience part and reform around the actors like water, the actors often would surround the audience. This is an all-youth cast, and having them all so close to you makes clear just how young they are. It's a different experience having actual teenagers in teenage roles, rather than a cast of performers in their 20s. The plight and vulnerability of the characters is that much more palpable—and the sexuality of the characters, combined with their youth, can be more than a little unsettling. One can understand why their onstage parents might not be ready to deal with their children's burgeoning adulthood. Some of the adults in the audience weren't either. On the flip side, the younger members of the audience were cheering the characters on in their rebellion. And it has to be enormously liberating for young actors to be allowed to swear and talk frankly about sex when society, even today, would rather they not. In a way, that's the whole point of doing Spring Awakening, particularly the way blank slate is doing it.
The intimacy of this production does wonders for even the technical aspects of the play. What a treat to finally attend a production of a musical in which no one needs to wear a microphone, so there's nothing between the audience and the actor's voice. The lighting is also fantastic. Designed by Shawn Chromey-Daniels, assisted by Allie Hatch and executed by Mary Rosen, the lighting has to account for the fact that sometimes the audience is just going to get in the way and cast their own shadows. Given how close actors and audience are, however, whether the light is direct or indirect, some light can't help spilling through. Sometimes characters are lit more traditionally, sometimes haloed with angelic light, sometimes hit with a splash of color, and often highlighted in the stark contrast of light and shadow. No one is ever truly in the dark. These fragile human bodies are always present. It's a haunting, visceral experience.
I'd be remiss if I didn't quickly mention some of the performances. Director Arnold has gotten some great work out of his cast. The full ensemble does a powerful job of creating this community of characters. Among the supporting characters, I was struck by the individuality among Wendla's girlfriends in this production. Martha (Lucy Lawton) always stands out due to her harrowing duet with Ilse (Kendall Kent) on "The Dark I Know Well." But not only was this moment, and the actress, a standout, Wendla's other two friends Thea (Noa Beckham-Chasnoff) and Anna (Aidan Gallivan) set themselves apart with their own specific personalities. That's not always easy to do in an ensemble musical when you don't get a big number all to yourself. It makes Wendla seem less alone, and her possibility of survival greater in this high-stakes environment.
Hanna Sprout as Wendla is key to the show working as well as it does. Her mother (Marianna Mattes) may be keeping her in the dark about where babies come from, but Wendla's no dummy. She has a sharp mind and a strong sense of who she is. When Wendla strikes up a friendship with Melchior (Ryan Levin) that grows into something more, it's a relationship of equals. Sprout's voice is one of the strongest in the bunch, and her high-pitched screams at two key points in the show can make your blood run cold.
Music director Eli Newell also has the key role of Moritz. Dogged by desire and hampered by a whole slew of adults lined up against him, Newell goes to some of the darkest places in this story. When he sets his voice loose, it's a powerful thing, and his moments of falsetto are astonishing.
As the boy caught between the unraveling fates of Moritz and Wendla, Ryan Levin as Melchior can't always use his voracious pursuit of knowledge as a tool against the obstacles in front of him. Sometimes, he's just a guy at the mercy of emotions and urges he can't understand, and about which he has no one to whom he can turn for answers. It's not just desire that confuses Melchior and Wendla, it's the beginning of feelings that might actually turn into love. Watching them fumble their way toward each other, emotionally as well as physically, is fascinating to watch.
The rest of the ensemble—Ethan Fogel, Sydney Gilliam, Leah Liberman, Jackson Raynor, and Luke Thomley—all get their moments to shine. The gay subplot between schoolboys Hanschen (Spencer Levin) and Ernst (Frankie McLeod) also works well, for the most part. Spencer Levin's work as Hanschen is delightfully fearless. He almost qualifies as a fourth lead, while avoiding being a scene-stealer. Unlike a lot of his classmates, Hanschen is unafraid of his sexuality. The fact that he's gay in a largely straight world makes his self-assuredness even more impressive. He's smart enough to know the way the world works, and how to play it to his advantage. That's why it's surprising that this storyline is where the production makes its only real misstep.
Late in the action, Hanschen's pursuit of Ernst is successful and the two of them perform the same song ("The Word of Your Body") performed earlier by Wendla and Melchior. It's a choice on the part of the composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist Steven Sater that makes a point of a gay couple being much the same as a straight one, without making a big issue of it. For the most part, that's the way it's treated in performance here. Then suddenly toward the end, the actors start hamming it up, as if it's a joke. Because the audience is fully in tune with the production at this point, when the actors play for laughs, they get laughs. But it doesn't come off as the two boys being silly with each other, it comes off as if the production is saying two boys in love is a joke. Because a boy and a girl in love are to be treated seriously, but two boys in love is hilarious?
I understand if actors, young or old, have issues with same-sex intimacy, or even heterosexual intimacy. I'm not arguing for the guys to spend a lot of time making out or doing anything they're uncomfortable with, any more than I'd want male and female actors paired together to be forced to do anything. But we understand you're acting. It's not you, it's the character. You don't have to remind us you aren't serious. And it's Spring Awakening. You know what you're getting into when you audition and accept the role, and when you sign on to the project as a director. Gay people, young and old, see very little of themselves onstage as it is. It's significant that both the original play, and the musical it's based on, included a gay couple in a positive light. The gay members of your audience don't mind all the straight characters' problems being treated with great seriousness. They'd just like their own stories to be treated with the same respect.
But, honestly, this is one moment in a show that is so uniformly great otherwise, it shouldn't deter anyone from seeing the show. As I said at the beginning of this review, even those who have seen the play already this year should definitely see this unique presentation of it. And those who haven't yet seen Spring Awakening should definitely give this production a look. It's a powerful piece of theater, with fantastic songs, powerfully done by blank slate theatre. (Shout out to the tireless band members: Whistler Allen, William Bauer, DeCarlo Jackson, Jordan Michael Malm, and Melissa Warhol.) The material, the environment and the artistic team all combine to make blank slate theatre's Spring Awakening a compelling piece of entertainment. Very highly recommended.
Also in the Daily Planet:
• Sheila Regan's feature on the future of blank slate theatre.
• Matthew A. Everett's review of the University of Minnesota/Theater Latté Da production of Spring Awakening (2012).
• Reviews of the touring Broadway production of Spring Awakening by Jay Gabler (2009) and Rebecca Mitchell (2010).
Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.
©2012 Matthew A. Everett