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Chicago by John Olson

Spring Awakening
Promethean Theatre Ensemble

Spring Awakening
Devon Candura and Jes Bedwinek
The robustness of Chicago's theater community has been attributed in large part to the number of strong college-level theater programs in the area, giving the city a steady stream of undergrad and recent graduate talent itching for any chance to get on stage. With musicals attracting more audiences and mainstream critical attention than non-musicals, aspiring singer-actors tend get more opportunities for visibility than actors cutting their teeth on the classics. Plus, isn't it easier to think of the large non-profit, Equity companies as the place to see the classics anyway? Promethean's production of Spring Awakening is a good opportunity for audiences to see some young actors delivering mature and sophisticated performances in a classic (1891) play and to discover the niche of non-Equity storefront companies who focus largely on the classics.

Infrequently performed and probably little known until its 2006 Broadway musical adaptation, Frank Wedekind's original play is an example of the social realist theater that flourished in the latter 19th century. Like Schnitzler's La Ronde (written in 1900 some nine years after Spring Awakening), it deals realistically with issues of sexual behavior and shows teens participating in simulated masturbation, rape and gay sex. Both plays were too racy for their time and not performed publicly until many years after their writing. The Wedekind play deals with German society's shielding of their children from any understanding of sex, even as puberty transformed the kids' bodies and instincts, and tragedy results from the adults' refusal to help their children understand these physical changes. (For another look at German attitudes of the era toward child rearing and sex education, check out the 2009 Academy Award nominee for foreign language film, The White Ribbon.) Ironically, the teen characters in Spring Awakening who fare the best are the two gay boys, who keep their attraction entirely hidden from the elders and thus avoid their interference.

Stephen F. Murray directs this production without irony and with great sympathy for the young characters. The actors read the dialogue with a convincing naturalism, no small feat considering the formal linguistic tone of the 1890s period in which the story is set. The adult characters—parents, teachers and a minister—are performed in masks to represent their "otherness." A panel of faculty members voting to expel the individualistic student Melchior is exaggerated to comic effect. Only Melchior's parents—his sympathetic and lenient mother and strict but troubled father—are performed more naturalistically.

Nick Lake gives us a complex, thoughtful Melchior, though his transition from rebellious academic to physical abuser of the sweet and virginal Wendla (played winningly by Devon Candura) comes on too abruptly. Melchior's friend Moritz, the student struggling with grades as well as the onset of puberty, is played sensitively by Tyler Rich, who navigates Moritz's journey from goofiness to torment and tragedy most convincingly.

Supporting cast members are all effective. Jessica London-Shields is heartbreaking as the abused Martha keeping up a strong demeanor in the face of physical beatings by her parents. Jes Bedwinek doubles as Thea—the pal of Wendla and Martha—as well as Wendla's befuddled and misguided mother. Cole Simon has a magnetism as Hans, the more confident gay partner of the shy Ernst played by Zachary Clark. Clark also provides a nuanced picture of Melchior's father that allows us to understand the father's choice of a harsh course of action for his troubled son, while London-Shields shows the most humanity of all the adults as Melchior's mother. Paul G. Miller comically plays the headmaster, other authority figures and a classmate. Sara Gorsky makes a fascinating Ilse—the sexually adventurous girl who manages to escape the strictness of the adult-driven society for a more permissive lifestyle.

The action plays out in front of Aaron Menninga's simple but effective set of a flat, combining the outlines of windows that might be in a church or a school, connected to cutouts of graveyard tombstones. The simple, peasant-like costumes designed by Emma Weber establish a feel for the community and era. Scene changes are covered by recorded rock music, giving the production something of the attitude of the musical.

With a running time of some two and a half hours including a 10-minute intermission, Wedekind's play is talky in a way that is challenging to the audience, with the characters engaging in long, reflective conversations and soliloquies. In this sense, it was ideal source material for the musical, which took these ruminations into rock songs. Fans of the musical will enjoy this production, though, if they are interested in digging deeper into the characters' psyches and increasing empathy for the non-ironic portrayals of the struggles of the kids in this particular era. And, even though adult society today is not so oppressive of teenagers and provides a generally more enlightened sex education, Spring Awakening still delivers a strong sense of the fragility of youth and the difficulty of parenting that is sadly and powerfully appropriate for our time.

Spring Awakening will be presented at The Artistic Home, 3914 N. Clark St., through May 9, 2010. Tickets are $20.00 and can be purchased online at www.prometheantheatre.org, by phone at 1-800-838-3006, or reserved by e-mailing pteboxoffice@gmail.com.


Photo: Tom McGrath

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-- John Olson



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