Caleb Bourgeois is making an ambitious directorial debut tonight, overseeing Out North’s production of “Spring Awakening,” the Tony-bedecked rock musical by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik based on the play of the same name by Frank Wedekind.
Overtly depicting teen sex, suicide, child abuse, abortion and so forth, Wedekind’s 1891 play was considered so shocking that it took 15 years before a censored version was finally produced.
Today such topics are fodder for shows on the Disney Channel. And yet Wedekind’s searing play remains almost too painful to watch; indeed, while today it is widely read as a masterpiece of modern theater, staged presentations remain rare.
Delivering the shock in song and dance doesn’t soften any of the edges. If anything, the musical version seems to sharpen the agony.
That may be due as much to the playwright’s clear and unsympathetic depiction of life as to the uncomfortable topics. Despite a spectre or two, “Spring Awakening,” often described as an “expressionist” play, is also a realist/existentialist statement as hard-nosed as the attitudes of the educational “parrotocracy” pilloried in the play.
The action (if that’s the right word) revolves around the clash of confused, hormone-charged youth with cruel or uncommunicative adults. No one wins. Main characters include a 14 year old girl who doesn’t know how babies are made and — no surprise — gets pregnant and a disowned boy who kills himself. Wedekind supposed that such problems would be lessened in a more enlightened society. And yet they remain problems this week. I see few signs that Facebook, school reform, sex ed and other presumed advancements have made much of a dent in the endemic cluelessness that Wedekind lamented in the industrial 19th century middle class.
“The smartest decision made by the creators of this adaptation was to retain the original setting in provincial Germany, to resist a facile attempt at updating the material,” said a New York Times review. “The yawning gap between the force of desire and the possibilities for its release is not exactly an antique phenomenon ... the emotional essence of the story still transmits an ache that few will fail to recognize.”
Like other great playwrights, Wedekind may not have initially realized the perpetual realities to which his own creations steered his pen. The central figure is a smart young man who believes in nothing. Then he discovers love and can’t square this new and irrefutable belief in his own emotions with his native nihilism. This conundrum over-arches all of the other calamity-producing elements — parental demands and neglect, soul-crushing institutional impersonality, misdirected adolescents in a tumult of searching and yearning.
From the moment the story begins, you know it can’t end well — prepare for two hours of squirming in your seat. The experience is heightened by the intimacy of Out North theater, with actors nearly in the lap of the viewers. Even with the scaled-down five-piece acoustic folk-alt ensemble band in lieu of the original Broadway orchestra — one is swallowed up.
“Spring Awakening” is a work of musical theater in which theatricality looms. It will be presented at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 5 at Out North, 3800 DeBarr Road. Tickets are $25, $20 for students and seniors, at centertix.net.