An incredible stimulation. Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff.
An incredible stimulation. Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff.

The Bitch of Living

Most people know Spring Awakening as the Tony Award-winning musical, but fewer know it's based on a self-published 1891 play by German writer Frank Wedekind. The haunting story of several melancholy teens coming to grips with their sexuality in a repressed pre-World War I Germany, it was almost instantly notorious. Candid scenes of masturbation, abortion and suicide, as well as discussions about sexual abuse, rape and atheism, although not sensational, were graphic enough to ensure the play would quickly run up against the Thought Police, which it did—and got banned.

More than a century later, we're still obsessed and repressed. We can download as much sexual deviance as we can stomach, but we still find it tough to talk to one another about the most private, intimate moments of our lives. Sylvia Plath's husband, the late poet Ted Hughes, knew a thing or two about balancing the dark with the light, and his achingly beautiful translation tackles the various erotic and social taboos with tenderness and deep empathy.

Thank heaven that delicate, century-old dance between the sublime and the surreal is strong enough to survive director Anne Justine D'Zmura's muddled concept for it.

Is it futuristic, though the dialogue states the play is taking place in the late 1800s? Is it a Julie Taymor retread, with actors playing teachers wearing cothurni and huge, misshapen puppet heads so they tower over the rest of the cast? Is it a kind of Nine Inch Nails/semi-fascist/transgressive/industrial mishmash (with its immense chainlink-fence set; brown, black and plastic costumes; and overused fog machine?

D'Zmura clearly couldn't make up her mind, so it's a little bit of everything.

The production is a blender full of all those ideas, many of them breathtaking. But good theater is about putting the best, most consistent choices together to serve the work, not the director's vision.

And if that vision consists of showing offstage picture skills without investment in coherency or a clean through-line, then performances suffer. Much of the acting feels like the cast members were left to their own devices while technical things were addressed, though there are a handful of exceptions. Ali Sohaili's troubled Melchior is initially strong, yet falls into emotional stasis by the play's poignant but mishandled climax; Samantha Richert is passionate and focused as Melchior's conscientious and loving mother, Frau Gabor; John Henry wins hands-down—no pun intended—as the bravest actor onstage, with a very long (and very funny) masturbation scene and monologue.

Despite my jaded stipulations, there aren't a lot of opportunities to see this play, and it's only the second production I'm aware of in recent years—the Chance did a well-reviewed version a few years back—so try to make the trip. If those reservations scare you off, there's always the musical.

Spring Awakening at the Cal State Long Beach Studio Theater, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 985-5526; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m. $12-$15.


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