'Spring's Awakening' Needs a Little More Action

This week's book club: Where Did I Come From?

Sex may be everywhere and on everybody’s mind, but it does tend to complicate things. And if fortysomethings still need therapy to help them work through issues of sexual identity, it’s no wonder it drives teenagers hitting puberty, well, fucking crazy.

Take Spring’s Awakening—no, not the big Broadway musical that won eight Tony Awards in 2008, but rather an adaptation at STAGEStheatre of Spring Awakening, Frank Wedekind’s 1891 tragedy about German teenagers ravaged by sexual thoughts and the overbearing morality of their religious, social and familial institutions.

The central conflict is saucy: the battle between what those institutions are telling these kids to do, think and believe and those children’s desire to talk about sex, to jerk off into toilets, to be whipped, and to basically act like the young-dumb-and-full-of-come agents of innocent perversion that teenagers always have been.

Well, okay, not actually dumb. Everyone is highly articulate, able to conjugate their Latin verbs and casually drop Faust’s name into conversation even as they draw elaborate pictures of penises on a chalkboard.

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But because the play’s language is so ornate—even in director Mike Martin’s adaptation—and the young characters talk about so many weighty objects as they experience hormonal eruptions, it makes for a tedious affair. Most of the characters seem as though they’ve walked off the pages of a Charlotte Brontë novel, overshadowing the seething sexual tension and bogging down the rather salacious events.

Central character Melchior (a suitably confused Chris Deacon) is a smart 14-year-old who is supposed to be a good, obedient Catholic but is actually an atheist and quite knowledgeable about sexual reproduction. Those attributes are catnip to his best friend, Moritz (a suitably angst-riddled Adam Evans), a poor student terrified by his own sexual awakenings and drawn to contemplate suicide out of his intense guilt.

A dozen other characters populate the scenes, from two gay classmates of Melchior and Moritz to several girls, the most prominent being Wendla (Samantha Aneson), a 14-year-old who yearns for sexual information from her mother but who is told only that babies are born out of love. So when Wendla has a sexual encounter (for all practical purposes, she’s raped), she has no idea the act can lead to a baby, since she’s not in love. Her mother’s desperate choice to fix Wendla’s problem ushers in the most tragic of the play’s events.

There is a tendency among the cast to overact, which isn’t a surprise; after all, they’re called upon to both portray characters far younger than their real ages and to deliver impossibily smart-for-young-teens dialogue.

But a more important flaw in the staging of this play is Martin’s struggle with clarity. For instance, it’s tough to figure out just when or where this play is set. Though the language feels old-fashioned, even archaic, the first moment of sexual tension comes when a tossed football rolls at the feet of a gaggle of girls. Since this is a play so immersed in the stifling morality of late-19th century Germany, the anachronism is immediately jarring.

And there’s very little Martin can do with the play’s strangest image: the expressionist scene at play’s end where a morally ravaged Melchior confronts a dead friend in a graveyard and a strange figure walks onstage to instruct him to come back to the land of the living. It’s already a tough sell in a play that has been so straightforward all along, and dressing the mysterious man in a white suit, like Tom Wolfe with blingy shades, makes the experience even more off-putting.

Staging a 120-year-old play that is actually a seminal work in modern drama (and one that was banned or periodically shut down throughout the 20th century because it portrays teenagers having sex onstage) is a brave choice for any theater to make; unfortunately, Martin’s adaptation doesn’t do enough to make it feel resonant for contemporary audiences. Based on this production, Spring’s Awakening is a play that seems to work better in theory than practice—just like sex, something that might turn out a great deal better for a lot of us if we thought about it a little more before actually diving in.

Spring’s Awakening at STAGEStheatre, 400 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 525-4484; www.stagesoc.org. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Aug. 1. $15-$18.


This review appeared in print as "A Little More Action, Please: STAGEStheatre’s take on a scandalous 19th-century teen-sex tragedy lets the ornate dialogue get in the way of the teen sex—and its consequences."

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