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Thursday, Aug 18, 2022

Spring Show Expands Campus Discussion

Spring Awakening is a difficult play: difficult in its dark subject matter and complex textual foundation, difficult in the inherent interplay between reality and expressionism and difficult to review in the context of multiple losses of community members and ensuing discussions of high levels of student stress. Written in 1891 by German playwright Frank Wedekind to contribute to nationwide discussions and criticisms of the repression of German society and schools, the play is long, cynically dark and often impossible to understand.  It should be noted, though, that under the confident direction of Associate Professor of Theatre Claudio Medeiros ’90, the large cast and creative team presented the tale of repression, suicide, rape and adolescent sexuality with insight, sensitivity and an impressive excess of theatrical talent.

The opening scene began with a spotlight on Artist-in-Residence Scotty Hardwig’s shirtless back, slick green hair and painted shoulders. Writhing as he wrote with a quill – Medeiros showed him videos of snakes hatching out of their eggs as inspiration – his erratic, devilish movements were at once captivating and disorienting as the audience tried to identify the mysterious figure presented from behind at the beginning of the play. Feverish, desperate scratches of the quill intensified the masked man’s urgent need to empty the contents of his mind onto the page, introducing the idea that this figure was also the creator of the events about to unfold.

“I think that what this interpretation of the masked man became is a highly expressionist image of carnal and expressive emotions in a way that’s life-affirming through a celebration of flesh, which is very unsentimental but also powerful and primal,” Hardwig said in the Friday post-show talkback.

At its core, Spring Awakening is about the repressed physical and sexual curiosities of school-aged teenager Melchior Gabor, played by Adam Milano ’15, and 14-year-old Wendla Bergmann, acted by Chelsea Melone ’15. This is both Milano and Melone’s last production at the College, and their interactions on stage crackled with unbelievable intensity as the two exceptional talents tackled their demanding scenes – including a beating and a rape – with characteristic prowess.

A simple set design comprised of blackboards filled with German text constantly reminded viewers of the omnipresent school system and the stifling traditions of generations past while allowing enough flexibility for the lighting design to signal scene changes from a forest to a reformatory to a barn to the warmth of a home. In the final scene, actors appeared under sheets to transform the sparse set to a cemetery full of gravestones, and throughout the production, sound, lighting and carefully chosen props created an immersive world that allowed for audience engagement and personal interpretation.

The break-out student performance of the evening came from Jackson Prince ’17 in his portrayal of Moritz Stiefel, Melchior’s best friend whose good-humored attitude toward his failing grades ultimately proves insufficient when he dramatically shoots himself at the end of the first act. Carefully revealing the character of a boy whose deep-rooted insecurities and depression cannot be overcome by his often delightful sense of humor and curiosity, Prince presented a character whose three-dimensionality and emotional struggle rings painfully true in an environment which is currently filled with dialogues about student stress and well-being.

Joelle Mendoza Etchart ’15 was a clear stand-out in her portrayal of the humorous prostitute Ilse. Though her time on stage was not long, she dominated with each line and natural physical comedy, eliciting easy laughs as she elevated her supporting role to one of the most memorable appearances.

Wendla’s innocent curiousity, spurred by her lack of experience, leads her to ask Melchior to beat her. Melone’s chilling screams and Milano’s passionate fervor were presented in an impressively tactful manner considering the dark subject matter. Though Melchior initially hesitates, he takes to the task with an animalistic desire that is repeated in a later scene when Melchior rapes Wendla in his first manifestation of sexual instinct, which is based purely off of an unsentimental education from books.

Spring Awakening was incredibly risque at the time of its release in 1891 and was only performed uncensored in England in 1974, with scenes involving solo and group masturbation still causing some uneasiness among today’s audience. Credit must be paid to Michael Brady ’17.5, whose character, Hanschen Rilow, loved and ‘killed’ nude women in famous paintings in a playful and angst-ridden unrequited tete-a-tete including unrestrained and ultimately unfulfilled masturbatory attempts ending in the destruction of the images portraying his two-dimensional idols.

The play places culpability for Moritz’s suicide and the rape of the innocent but curious Wendla on the caricatured school faculty and well-meaning but ultimately fatal decisions of the parents, not on the adolescents.

Wendla’s mother, Frau Bergmann, played with believable uncertainty and affection by Liana Barron ’18, still tells her daughter that babies are delivered by the stork, and when she finally agrees to explain to Wendla how babies are really created, she crafts a humorous lie about needing to feel a profound level of love impossible before marriage. The humor of this mistruth is shattered, of course, when Wendla’s ignorance of sex leads to a pregnancy which ultimately kills her because of its attempted termination.

Similarly, when explicit diagrams and explanations of sex and sexuality in Melchior’s hand are found in Moritz’s book after his death, Melchior is brought before a board of laughably incompetent faculty members, notably including Zac Lounsbury ’16 as the unbending Headmaster Sunstroke.  The advanced age of the academics was further emphasized by chalk-white wigs, hearing problems and the painfully slow movements of a man named “Fastcrawler,” portraying a system more interested in protecting itself than in considering the needs of its students.

“The very heightened treatment of the professor scene, with the makeup and the wigs, that’s all for this production, but I feel that it honors the text, which moves from more realistic to heightened expressionist scenes,” Meideros said. “The idea of expressionism here is the same as in painting – instead of representing the reality as you see it in life, you represent the essence, the core of reality, therefore giving it expression.”

Indeed, the play offers an interpretation of Wendla’s rape that may prove perplexing to a modern audience. Melchior is thrown out of school for his writing and drawings about human sexuality, not his sexual domination over a 14-year-old girl, and in the final scene, the all-knowing masked man reassuringly informs Melchior that Wendla would have delivered a healthy baby had not her abortion failed. Adding more complexity to the issue, though Wendla clearly struggles to grapple with the ramifications and implications of her first sexual experience, she also experiences a profound spiritual and physical liberation from the encounter that questions the assumed wrong of Melchior’s rape.

Caitlin Duffy ’15.5’s superb portrayal of Moritz’s mother undergoing a nervous breakdown was further heightened by her crisp, captivating stage presence, proving a highlight of the production. Additionally, the raw emotions of Emma Eastwood-Paticchio ’15’s screams of agony after Moritz’s funeral stayed with the audience long after her confident and chilling performance as Martha Bessel, a victim of parental abuse.

In the final scene, when Moritz confronts Melchior in a graveyard – either as a real character or an expression of Mechior’s psyche – the use of an oversized suit to convey the idea of a decapitated head offered a biting glimmer of dark humor as Prince held his hand under his chin, alternating between left and right to give the idea that he was forced to exist in the afterlife carrying his head in his hands. This visual comedy – characteristic of the tragicomedy pervading the work – played in contrast to Moritz’s dark and disturbing pitch to Melchior to join him in the afterlife, a parallel universe of no pain which breeds pity for the living. In this climactic monologue two-and-a-half hours into the play, all signs pointed to an ultimate message that death is indeed a preferable choice to life, and the audience seemed to uncomfortably hold their breath as Melchior considered offering his hand to his dead friend.

Both Medeiros and Hardwig wanted to provide the audience with a visual link between the beginning and the end, and the surprising reintroduction of the masked man in the final scene proved to be one of the most successful theatrical choices in the play.

“One of my earliest ideas was to introduce the masked man at the beginning,” Medeiros said. “It was also my idea to have a dancer. In working with Scotty the idea was to open it up to multiple interpretations of who he might be. That the masked man is sinister is definitely true, and intentional.”

Hardwig’s reappearance reaffirmed the serpentine eroticism of the character implied to be the show’s creator. All-knowing and alive, his gracefully ominous movements supplemented a mysterious revelation that Moritz did not, in fact, have the power to take Melchior to the afterlife. In this viewer’s opinion, the finest moment of the play occurred moments before its end when the masked man turns to the two young boys – one alive, one dead – and says “In the end, everyone has his part,” telling Moritz that “you have the comforting knowledge of nothing” and offering Melchior “the tormenting doubt of everything.” It may have been a two-hour journey, but the play’s final message is ultimately one of hope in life, though it acknowledges the challenges inherent in being alive. And in the end, Melchior chooses life.

In the incredibly talented hands of the student cast, Spring Awakening was transformed from a dark, tragicomic commentary on repression in late 19th century German society into a relevant discussion of struggles facing adolescents regardless of time or place. It is not an easy play, but when facing issues as complex and relevant as mental illness, anxiety and adolescent sexuality, the brash, expositive lens of Spring Awakening is a welcome voice in what is hopefully only the beginning of an ongoing conversation.