Playwrights are called "ahead of their time" once we feel we've safely caught up to their insights and innovations. Thus, even the most far-seeing and radical visionaries often become assimilated into theatrical convention. T.S. Eliot, however, offered a rejoinder to critics who claimed that "dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did." "Precisely," Eliot replied. "And they are that which we know." Even so, Frank Wedekind's Spring's Awakening, written in 1891—five years before Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi scandalized audiences with the mere mention of the word "merde"—resists canonical sterilization. The play continues to be so incompatible with acceptable notions of theatrical staging that productions become interesting for the tactics by which directors evade the rawness of the truths Wedekind confronts.
Audiences today still require that his portrayal of child molestation and adolescent rape, S&M, suicide, homosexuality, compulsive masturbation, abortion, and group sex be mollified with theatrical metaphors. Not even our cynical, "pornified" zeitgeist can stomach such unmitigated joy or nihilism. The play, therefore, is about how much the theater itself must mask.
Spring's Awakening concerns a group of teenagers discovering the vitality of their sexual being while realizing the ruinous consequences that it causes when it's suppressed to conform to adulthood's strictures. Robert, a 15-year-old, seduces a 13-year-old girl, Edie, whose mother spoon-feeds her stories about babies being delivered by storks. Edie's mother forces her to get a secret and dangerous abortion even as Edie fails to comprehend that she's pregnant.
Meanwhile, Ian—Robert's best friend—threatens suicide if he doesn't pass the exam for the next grade. Courtney, Edie's slightly older and more sophisticated friend, runs away from abusive parents into the arms of the local theater director, but not before igniting Ian's explosive desires. Robert attempts to defend Ian's actions with a starkly factual essay but gets expelled for obscenity. Moreover, the whole play is set against a backdrop of other boys at the boarding school exploring the full range of their newfound homosexual impulses.
Director Charmain Creagle uses modern dance as a metaphor for erotic fantasy to represent the fragile innocence with which these young characters explore their nascent sexuality. Melissa Coleman, dressed as an androgynous wood nymph with Boy George-esque facial makeup, spryly crouches and slinks around all the nooks and crevices of the stage while watching the action. During monologues, she silently entwines herself around the characters' arms and legs in sinuous and sensuous curls. As dancers, the characters must come to terms with their growing bodies' gravity, just as their characters are coming to terms with their bodies' growing gravitas.
On the other hand, in one of Wedekind's most outrageous scenes, a group of boys challenge each other to a "circle jerk" to see who can hit a coin with his semen. Creagle depicts this with expressionistic gestures—such as throwing fists in the air and biting one's arm—set to punk music. While the gestures were not graphic enough to convey the full force of the scene's violence, the ski masks the boys wore made them vaguely resemble grotesque pictures from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
Creagle offers another effective visual corollary to the play's themes by representing the adults' roles in projections on a screen looming over the adolescents' heads. We see only isolated body parts of the adults—mouth, feet, breasts—as if they had become chopped up, flattened into video images, and manipulated to endure the technocratic restrictions of some vast super-ego-in-the-sky. Ironically, these body parts belong to the same actors who play the adolescents. By contrast, the adolescents onstage appear tender, palpable, fluid, and alive: they are, literally, in touch with reality.
The one exception to this is Robert's progressive mother, played live by the young and fetching Hana Nora McGrath. This mother figure is the play's only embodiment of a mature, sexually awakened yet not morbid or moribund adult. McGrath convincingly manages the difficult tensions of her character—between youth and age, innocence and authority, sympathy and instruction. She conveys a luminous aura of sexual suggestiveness as she undoes her stockings while Coleman's wood nymph alternately skitters around her, clasps her back, and, cat-like, plays with her socks.
Inseung Park's set design—large, irregular wooden panels floating in midair that frame the stage, with blossoming tree branches growing downward in back of them—adds an element of delicate spatial tension, as well, by seeming to disembody the very heft of the materials.
Ultimately, Wedekind's play does not intend to merely shock, and this graceful and intelligent production contains a tenderness that refuses to sentimentalize experience. Instead, it offers us the shock of recognizing the underlying vulnerability and innocence of truth and sex, the many veils of which it depicts through a tantalizing dance.