Photo: The Orpheus cast and production team.
The original German version of the play was published in 1891 and then performed by Wedekind’s own company in 1906. Because of the subject matter where adolescents were concerned, it created much controversy and was not staged in German until after WWII while the American musical was first staged in 2006 based on a new English language translation that followed the one that appeared in 1917. Such a long and controversial history which also includes a movie, makes it difficult to keep track of this show which appears nowadays to fuse two time periods, two visions of the theatre, nevertheless producing a most stunning story and perfectly constructed scenario, built around a tragic vision of young people .
The play shows how a society that represses young people, brings with it all forms of destruction, even after the moment when the central sexual taboo has been transgressed, the downfall of all those who have grown with a sense of guilt in relation to their bodies, cannot be avoided. Tragedy is inevitable because the evil worm has been planted too deeply in their minds. . This devastating critique of the stern bourgeois society at the end of the 19th Century, is represented by the way young people listen to the needs of their bodies, and their most natural desires , but this awakening of sexuality is repressed by parents who imposed a military-like regime on their young ones at that time. And this in depth analysis of sexual repression relies on Freud’s news notions of the psyche that started appearing at the same period. The performance becomes a fascinating mixture of sexual fantasy, and real confrontation with unyielding social institutions that wield their power over natural human instincts.
It builds up all the twisted behaviour that emanates from repressed sexuality by strict parents by a domineering and oppressive school system and all the instruments of a militarized society: sado-masochistic pleasure, abusive sexual behavior by parents, exaggerated punitive measures that could even lead children to suicide and it was all done, according to Wedekind with the help of the church. His portrait of a cruel, dangerous society as told through the martyrdom of these young people was something that had never been seen before in Europe. It is obvious why Germany did not like the play when it was first produced as it foretold the rise of a dictatorship was to come a generation later.
The first part of the evening ends with a beautifully choreographed ritual that has the young couple making desperate love in spite of Wendla’s hesitation (is it rape? Some might say so), which appears to take place in a church as the young chorus in the background listens to the clergyman, played by a snarling, ugly John Collins. A solid performance by this versatile actor (recently seen as Cuirette in Hosanna at Live on Elgin ) takes on the roles of all the horrifying male adults in the show, turning each one of them into a monster, or even a frightening caricature which supplied some temporary comic relief in this quagmire of hate , guilt and suffering. Justice Tremblay as the beautiful Wendla not only has a bell-like voice but her acting is extremely sensitive. These roles obviously engaged these young actors very deeply and the result was a whole series of performances that went way beyond the norm. Also extremely powerful was Cameron Jones (Mortz) who loses his self-control as he slowly disintegrates. His own repressed sexual fantasies are soon displaced to become an obsessive interest in his studies but faced with a violent father when he is forced to leave school his life falls apart. , the effects on the young man are disastrous. Wedekind’s analysis of this behavior which fetters the human body and fills young people with guilt is the essence of his play that was seen to be so transgressive in his lifetime.
The musical with its contemporary lyrics adds moments of humour and boisterous denial- “I’m fucked” yells Melchior who is accused of writing pornographic letter to his beautiful girlfriend Wandla . Phillip Merriman manages his role with much maturity and control that make him very believable as the young man who rejects all this ideology but who becomes one of its victims.
It appears that the lyrics of that final collective number where the ghosts all return to dance with the living, tries to bring all the sad bits together in a rosy synthesis predicting a brighter future but it was clearly all too rosy and not in keeping with the spirit of Wedekind’s play . Obviously the contemporary lyricists had to respect the conventions of musical theatre which is not supposed to end badly!! .
Needless to say, this fusion of 19th Century anger and 21st century musical theatre stage craft deftly directed by Chantal Plante, magnificently choreographed by Lola Ryan was an extraordinary and spellbinding mixture of drama, malaise and intense emotions, that inspired anger , and great admiration for this extremely talented cast that brought it all together so well. The wild choreography which gave the illusion of confusion and boundless energy spoke to us about those young bodies trying to liberate themselves as they were imprisoned by the grueling cruelty and restrictions of the adult world. One of the notable examples was Jesse Levy’s ( Martha) rich young voice and excellent acting that overpowered the stage , during her forceful and disturbing number about being abused by her father . And there was John Collins, the terrifying father appearing and disappearing in the background, like the monster that had taken possession of her subconscious!! Chantale Plante’s direction was full of meaningful details that flitted by but that gave the tone to this excellent performance.
The Book and lyrics by Steven Slater , and the music by Dunca Sheik echoed the emotions that tore through the performances. Six musicians upstage center in a Brechtian model, all became an integral part of the performance , directed by Paul Legault at the keyboard. The music constantly sent us back to The WALL, (The Who) and many other Rock musical performances as Mark Rehder’s percussion established the deep rhythms that drove the emotions forward. In this context, the strings (Sophia Pans on violin and Steve Smith on cello) were particularly delicate and emotionally vibrant.
This musical version of Spring Awakening: is a thoughtful and profoundly moving staging, as well as a brilliantly executed version of a great classic of Western theatre. Not to be missed!!
Spring Awakening: The Musical, an Orpheus production continues at Centrepoint theatre until September 25.