And it did, although not as well as it should have. The real success of Deaf West’s production is that its performers - both deaf and hearing - so beautifully convey the pain and innocence of their characters, you can’t help but feel for them. The show opens on Wendla, a young woman who desperately wants to know how babies are conceived. Her mother wants to tell her - you get the feeling that she genuinely does - but wimps out when it comes to actually giving Wendla the facts, in what one imagines is a hope that someone else will straighten the girl out before she ever needs to know. Sandra Mae Frank plays Wendla with a sweet, open innocence. Her Wendla is completely trusting, and never considers the possibility that her mother is not giving her the whole truth. Katie Boeck provides a perfect vocal match; she sounds as naive and curious as Frank’s Wendla appears.
While Wendla is all hope and curiosity, her friend Martha, a victim of physical and sexual abuse, is all pain. When actress Treshelle Edmond signs “The Dark I Know Well,” her signing is filled with such intensity and despair, it is stunning. Her voice counterpart, Kathryn Gallagher, is right there with her, as both actresses together create a portrait of the trapped victim.
On the male side of things, newcomer Austin McKenzie plays golden boy Melchior. Reading the program, it is hard to believe that this is McKenzie’s first professional production. He’s playing a smart, charismatic young man whom everyone likes. Significantly, Melchior is one of the characters played by a hearing actor - he both signs and sings, comfortable in both deaf and hearing worlds. He’s eager to defend the misunderstood, help educate the ignorant, and try to expand his own knowledge; and we easily believe that McKenzie’s Melchior is, in fact, all of these things. (This production also softens some of Melchior’s more questionable moments later in the play.)
The role of Moritz is taken on by Daniel Durant. We’ve seen Durant in prior Deaf West productions, and he just keeps getting better. Durant cranks things up another notch with Moritz. His manner is stressed and he’s constantly covered in sweat; this Moritz is a young man who never has a moment of peace. And it is with Moritz that this production actually focusses on the issue of deafness. Near the top of the show, when we see the boys in their classroom, underachiever Moritz briefly attempts to sign an answer to his teacher’s question, and is instantly shut down. This is an oral classroom, and signing is not permitted. It is without doubt a great addition to the play - Moritz is having enough trouble (more than most) with getting through school while puberty is distracting his thoughts - and humiliating him in class for his inability to do something he is physically unable to do is just the icing on his failure cake.
And yet this is completely undermined by a later scene in the play, between Moritz and his father, played by Troy Kotsur. Every other scene or song in the play is equally accessible to deaf and hearing audiences - through some mixture of sign, speech, and supertitles - but this scene between two deaf actors is played almost entirely in ASL alone. Perhaps this choice, on the part of director Michael Arden, was intended to show that Moritz and his family are different from everyone else, or maybe it was intended to give the hearing audience a taste of Moritz’s isolation. In any event, it backfires - hearing audiences are left feeling like this one scene between two excellent actors is a special treat for those in the audience fluent in ASL. More than that, while the show’s press materials suggest that Deaf West wanted to use this show to underline the inability of deaf children to communicate with hearing parents, this scene shows that Moritz and his father communicate in a private way that comes across as more intimate than any other conversation in the show. The scene’s dialogue leaves Moritz feeling utterly alone in the world; its performance, however, conveys the opposite.
There is quite a bit in Arden’s direction that is creative or beautiful, and there’s some nice imagery in here. At times (such as when cast members put lights on their fingertips), it seems as though the creativity is just there to be creative, without any story- or character-related purpose. But when it all comes together (for example, in what looks suspiciously like the Tree of Knowledge), it is very impressive.
Deaf West - David J. Kurs, Artistic Director - in association with The Forest of Arden, Cody Lassen, Jarrod Musano presents Spring Awakening Book and Lyrics by Steven Sater; Music by Duncan Sheik; Based upon the play by Frank Wedekind. Produced by David J. Kurs, Christopher Sepulveda, Ann E. Wareham. Scenic Design Christopher Scott Murillo; Costume Design Christopher Scott Murillo; Lighting Design Travis Hagenbuch; Sound Design Philip G. Allen; Wig & Hair Design Carol Doran; Orchestrations Duncan Sheik; String Orchestrations Simon Hale; Vocal Arrangements AnnMarie Milazzo; Projection Design Brent Stewart; Production Stage Manager TJ Kearney; Music Director Jared Stein; Publicity Lucy Pollak; ASL Masters Elizabeth Greene, Anthony Natale, Shoshannah Stern; Casting Beth Lipari, Bruce Newberg. Choreography by Spencer Liff. Directed by Michael Arden. Concept developed for Deaf West Theatre by Michael Arden and Andy Mientus.
Spring Awakening runs at Inner City Arts in Los Angeles through October 19, 2014. For tickets and information, see www.deafwest.org
Photo by Tate Tullier