By Tulis McCall
Spring Awakening has sprung and then some. There are times when you leave the theatre and think, “how can I find words to praise such and such a production?” In this case you might also think, “what is the sign for ‘extraordinary’?” Yes, sign. As in American Sign Language. ASL is the predominant language being used in this production, and Deaf West pulls this off like Houdini did his straight jacket.
Based on the Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play of the same name, this is the story of kids looking for answers and the adults who refuse to provide them. It is a story based on silence that uses silence as a literal lynch pin.
When Wendla (Sandra Mae Frank), signing, wonders how babies are made (she is voiced by Katie Boeck) she goes to her mother (Camryn Manheim) who speaks and signs:
For a woman to bear a child, she must… in her own personal way, she must… love her husband. Love him, as she can love only him. Only him… she must love – with her whole… heart.
There. Now, you know everything.
This “silence” is at the center of the story. Without knowing the truth, Wendla and Melchior (Austin P. McKenzie) lead their tribe down the path of sensual awakening. Their young bodies are heat seeking missles and everyone has everyone in their cross hairs. Their innocence and desire make for mighty partners. The adults (Patrick Page – who voices several roles – Marlee Maitlin and Russell Harvard, both of whom sign) are as rigid as an army of corsets. Memorize, recite, and tow the line. The boys are segregated in their school and driven mad by the archaic rules. The girls are left on their own until someone comes to claim them. Both are wasted assets in the years leading up to revolution and world wars. Mussolini was a teenager, Ida Wells was investigating lynching in our South and reporting on it, Tsar Nicholas was the newly minted Russian ruler. Impressionism was on the way out and Expressionism was on the way in. These kids do not stay innocent for long, and there is pain a plenty to spread around.
Surrounded by the conflict of right vs. explosive change this band of teenagers create a tribe all their own. I am fairly immune to young people stalking the stages of our theatre. Mostly I find them, well, young. I have little in common with them other than sharing the air we breathe. In this case, however, I connected deeply with these characters. I remembered that time in my life when I was filled with passion and possibilities and not a lot of clear thinking. Adults were maddening. And I had no idea where my road was leading. It is this visceral feeling that Spring Awakening was meant to evoke. This production succeeds brilliantly.
Michael Arden’s direction and Spencer Liff’s choreography create a symphony of movement. Steven Slater’s words and Duncan Sheik’s music explode into blossom while you watch. I saw the 2007 production and found it tedious and loud. This production is nuanced and singular. The voices and signing are so intricate that many times you cannot tell who is voice of a particular character. Which is of course the point. Ditto the phenomenal band who seems to have no leader but plays out of pure instinct. This cast surrenders to the story so completely that the bodies of the voices are invisible and the words of the deaf actors leap to life. The signing eventually becomes a ballet that you start to recognize and understand without intending to.
While Hamilton is busy pulling the oxygen out of the theatrical season, you would do well indeed to treat yourself to this production. For most of us, watching signing will be a revelation. When the lights come up at intermission, however, you will see people signing like crazy to one another and realize these people have been mostly invisible to you all your life. And then, you will wonder why this is the only show in New York where the hearing and deaf members of the audience are on a level playing field.
What’s up with that?
SPRING AWAKENING – Book and lyrics by Steven Sater; Music by Duncan Sheik; Choreography by Spencer Liff; Directed by Michael Arden
Cast With Robert Ariza, Miles Barbee, Katie Boeck, Alex Boniello, Joshua Castille, Lizzy Cuesta, Daniel N. Durant, Treshelle Edmond, Sandra Mae Frank, Kathryn Gallagher, Sean Grandillo, Elizabeth Greene, Russell Harvard, Amelia Hensley, Van Hughes, Lauren Luiz, Camryn Manheim, Daniel Marmion, Marlee Matlin, Austin McKenzie, Andy Mientus, Patrick Page, Ren, Krysta Rodriguez, Daniel David Stewart, Ali Stroker, Alexandra Winter and Alex Wyse
“Spring Awakening” continues through Jan. 24 at the Brooks Atkinson Theater; 212-719-4099; brooksatkinsontheater.com. Tickets