Thursday, June 11, 2015

Margin Notes: Spring Awakening (Deaf West)

Sandra Mae Frank and Austin McKenzie as
Wendla and Melchior. Photo by Kevin Parry.
Margin Notes: Spring Awakening

Seen on: Saturday, 6/6/15.
My grade: A-.

Plot and Background
Based on German playwright's Frank Wedekind's 1891 expressionist play, which explored the irresponsibility of the divide in communication between adults and children - and its catastrophic consequences for teens stumbling into sexual maturity - Spring Awakening the musical, which ran on Broadway 2006-2009, introduced a further dichotomy into its storytelling. While the book scenes maintained a stiffness and precision of dialogue meant to evoke the play's time period and its subsequent repression, the songs - alternating ballads with head-banging rock - were a distinct departure to contemporary expression and tone (a choice further highlights by the use of handheld microphones). That production won several Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Deaf West Theatre is a California-based theater company specializing in productions performed by deaf actors. This is their fourth musical produced [earlier productions were Oliver (1999), Big River (2002; Broadway transfer 2003), and Pippin (2009)]. These productions utilize both hearing and non-hearing actors - with all performers signing ASL, and hearing actors providing voice for the deaf ones - intended to be accessible for both hearing and non-hearing audiences. Michael Arden, who costarred in Big River and Pippin, returned to Deaf West to direct this production for a sold-out run last fall at the Rosenthal Theater, This is the production's encore run.

What I Knew Beforehand
I knew both the original Wedekind play (studied it in college as well as saw a production) and the musical adaptation that ran on Broadway. Though I saw the flaws in both the play and the musical, I still found much to admire in both. I also was a huge fan of Deaf West, having been lucky enough to see their profoundly moving and visually stunning production of Big River (my dad also recently hosted a panel at UCLA on this production and its impact, which included several members of Deaf West, one of the original translators, the director Jeff Calhoun, and some of the cast).


Play: I found this production extremely moving and electrifying. Arden and choreographer Spencer Liff really tap into the frantic pulse of Sheik's score, the erratic heartbeat of hormonal youth and insecurity. They find a vibrant balance of maintaining clarity with ASL while also crafting dynamic staging and choreography (as when the girls "assist" Hanschen with his risque Desdemona monologue, or when two of the girls (sisters?) seem to share thoughts, signing and speaking for each other). More than the past musicals produced by Deaf West, this production wants to also make a statement about how deaf people themselves are treated by society. In his Director's Note in the program, Arden points out that at the time Wedekind's play was originally written, sign language had been banned by The Milan Conference, and deaf people were forced to learn to lipread and speak despite their difficulties. Arden chose to illustrate this in the boys' classroom scenes, where signing is forbidden, the three deaf students are forced to speak, and Moritz - already the worst student - speaks the least intelligibly of all of them. It makes the already brutal scene even harsher, and furthers one of the themes of the show, that the adults are not just unable to communicate with the children, but resolutely refuse to learn. This production was a powerful reexamination of Spring Awakening, but it still could not fix my biggest problem with it - that ridiculous coda song, "Purple Summer." The show is over. The narrative is over. People are dead, the the rest are going to try to keep living. Why do we have this song? (my theory is the writers were too enamored of the song to cut it, and couldn't find a place within the show to stick it, so tacked it to the end) This production failed to answer that question for me, though it achieved a gorgeous stage picture in its attempt to do so.

Cast: Overall, the cast is terrific, with Daniel N. Durant a true standout in the showy role of Moritz (the same role which won John Gallagher, Jr. a Tony Award), performing a beautiful mix of rage and fear, crippled by his struggles to exist in a world where everyone but he seems able to cope. Sandra Mae Frank also brings a beautiful vulnerability to Wendla, one that only breaks into anger when she realizes the depths of her mother's betrayal - yelling out (without the aid of Katie Boeck's voice) "Why didn't you tell me everything?" Austin McKenzie, as Melchior, definitely has youth and a lovely voice on his side, but not always the presence that the town's golden boy might be expected to have. Broadway alums Krysta Rodriguez and Andy Mientus, as Ilse and Hanschen, are also quite good, she balancing an edgy bravery with despair, he milking the confident posturings of a young player who knows what he wants while providing some needed comic relief.

Design: Dane Laffrey's set is a cavernous industrial space, with metal rolling staircases, a two-flights-up open door through which actors hang precariously, and a collection of mismatched chairs, trunks, and various other bric-a-brac. The cast, all armed with chalk, draw upon the slate floor - frames for rooms, protective circles, etc., and the back wall is also used as a sort of slate, as certain scenes (some spoken without signing, some signed without speaking) are captioned in this way for the audience, through Lucy MacKinnon's projections. In keeping with the original production's intent, the costumes are a mix of period and contemporary - the characters all dress in period wardrobe, but the musicians - some of whom double as voices for the deaf performers - are in starkly contemporary gear: ripped jeans, oversized shirts, etc. Ben Stanton's lighting design is precise, shaded, and dramatic, by necessity - the audience has to know where to look. This design sometimes crosses over to Laffrey's costumes, as when the performers sign wearing light-tipped gloves.


Running: Recently playing at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts (Deaf West Theatre) - Opened: May 28, 2015. Closing: June 14, 2015
Category: musical
Length: 2 hours, 15 minutes, including intermission.

Creative Team

Book & Lyrics: Steven Sater
Music: Duncan Sheik
Based on: Frank Wedekind's play Spring Awakening
Director: Michael Arden
Designers:  Spencer Liff (Choreography), Dane Laffrey (Set & Costume), Ben Stanton (Lighting),  (Sound), Lucy MacKinnon (Projections), (Orchestrations), (Prop), (Fight Choreographer), Jared Stein (Musical Direction).
Cast: Joey Antonio, Hillary Baack, Miles Barbee, Sean Barna, Katie Boeck, Joshua Castille, Julian Comeau, Daniel N. Durant, Treshelle Edmond, Sandra Mae Frank, Kathryn Gallagher, Gabrielle Garza, Sean Grandillo, Karla Gutierrez, Amelia Hensley, Lauren M. Luiz, Heidi, Daniel Marmion, Austin McKenzie, Andy Mientus, Krysta Rodriguez, Natacha Roi, Howie Seago, Daniel David Stewart, Ali Stroker, Alexandra Winter, Alex Wyse.

Daniel N. Durant and company as Moritz. Photo by Kevin Parry.

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