A play about sex, suicide, homosexuality, child abuse, and love – written and set in 1891? In Germany? According to an introduction in the playbill written by Western Connecticut State University (WestConn) dramaturg Melissa Ottaviano, Frank Wedekind wrote The Awakening of Spring (the play’s original title) in 1891 because no one was talking about these taboo issues.
“Society was driven by religion and centered on men,” Ottaviano continues. “It wasn’t performed on a stage until over a decade after it was written. Audiences at the time weren’t ready to openly deal with the issues presented in the show.” Spring Awakening, a production by WestConn’s Department of Theatre Arts now playing at the school through March 16, challenges its audience to rethink their assumptions about life in both late 19th century Germany and modern day America.
Moritz, the off-beat and nervous best friend of Melchior, the leading man, is played by Austin Carnes. His playful personality brings his misunderstood character to life, and his daydreamy quality captures the audience’s attention. Moritz’s situation is so similar to that of many students in today’s world – pupils like Moritz aren’t given the attention they need, as teachers “teach to the test” in order to raise mastery testing scores. Conformity overwhelms him, and perhaps all he needs is a little support or encouragement from a teacher or parent.
Remarkably, Frank Wedekind was only twenty-seven years old when he wrote The Awakening of Spring. His work was often criticized for attacking the bourgeoisie, as evidenced in Spring Awakening, where the adults are “the bad guys” and the kids are merely young and finding their way.
The versatility of actors Casey Perruzzi and Anthony Mendoza is noteworthy. The pair hold many roles in the production, embodying parents, corrupt school officials, a piano teacher, and an illegal abortionist. Initially, Ms. Perruzzi played the reticent mother of Wendla. As that scene ended, she next played Melchior’s chatty mother, and I was amazed at her ability to portray two diverse women with such ease. From strict teacher to demanding and brutal father, Mr. Mendoza moved seamlessly between roles, impressing these characters upon the audience through minor costume and voice changes.
Katie Rudnicki plays Ilse, who was sexually abused by her father. Rudnicki portrays Ilse’s courageous struggle to tell the truth about her situation with sincerity and believability. She has a wonderfully rich singing voice, which is especially evident in the duet “The Dark I Know Well,” with Marta (Alexis Willoughby). The song describes the horrors of sexual abuse. Her solo, “Blue Wind,” in which she tries to convince Moritz not to take his own life, is especially moving in its honesty about searching for a place to call home. Although written in 1891, the Spring Awakening‘s lyrics are just as timely in 2013.
The sparsity of the set, designed by Elizabeth Popiel, directs the audience’s focus to the characters and their plights. The chorus sits in pews above the set, where they portray the all-seeing eyes of society and the church. By spreading the word that he’s an atheist, Melchior (Vincent McCoy) challenges religion and the view that “Nothing is okay unless it’s scripted in their bible.”
Remarkably, Frank Wedekind was only twenty-seven years old when he wrote The Awakening of Spring. His work was often criticized for attacking the bourgeoisie, as evidenced in Spring Awakening, where the adults are “the bad guys” and the kids are merely young and finding their way. He wrote a number of other plays, including Earth Spirit in 1895, Pandora’s Box in 1904, and The Dance of Death in 1908.
Who should see Spring Awakening? The play is ideal for high school age kids as it will offer a kinship in their journeys and show them see how far society has come in accepting, or at least discussing, topics like abortion and homosexuality. Adults will also enjoy this production’s first-rate orchestra and cast.
Spring Awakening performances continue on March 8, 9, 15, and 16 at 8pm and March 9, 10, and 16 at 2pm at WestConn’s Berkshire Hall Theatre at the Midtown Campus, located at 181 White Street in Danbury, Connecticut.. Due to sexual content and profanity, Spring Awakening is not recommended for children. General Admission: $25, Students and Seniors: $15, WestConn Students: free with ID. For tickets, call (203)837-8499.