Chicago Theatre Review
A Cautionary Tale With Bite
Spring Awakening – Fearless Theatre
Originally banned from the boards during the late Victorian era, during which this play is set and was written, and even now is censored, seldom produced or even recognized, Frank Wedekind’s German morality play was subtitled “A Children’s Tragedy.” It really wasn’t until 2006, when playwright Steven Sater and composer Duncan Sheik collaborated to adapt the play into a groundbreaking, multi-Tony Award-winning rock musical, that contemporary theatergoers finally discovered Frank Wedekind’s 1891 German tragedy.
Now a new company of young, energetic, relatively unknown college-aged actors have assembled under Derek Herman’s capable direction to present Wedekind’s play. A new version, however, has been adapted and directed by Jeremy Ohringer for the Fearless Theatre Collaborative and is itself groundbreaking. For one thing, Ohringer has updated most of the dialogue. He’s also set his 80-minute one act on a small American college campus. In addition, the playwright has removed the grownups from his version, although their presence is still felt, acknowledged and even mimicked. In the musical, two adult actors represent all of the authority figures in the story.
The result is a fresh, lyrical drama that still exposes such youth-oriented issues as the effects of strict parental pressure on kids to excel, the lack of care and instruction regarding children’s sex education, as well as a whole raft of other psychological problems still haunting our youth in the 21st century. Ohringer’s play is also cyclical, rather than linear, both opening and closing at an unruly college party. Melchior Gabor, the play’s principal character, shouts in frustration near the end that he wishes he could go just back to the way things were before (don’t we all?). Then, as if all those events had never transpired, we’re right back in the midst of the raucous party where the play began. Coming of age is still the main focus of Ohringer’s version, and topics such as puberty, sexuality, abuse, homosexuality, rape, abortion and suicide are dealt with, albeit fleetingly in many cases. These may have been controversial subjects for a play during the Victorian era, but today’s audiences have seen it all and won’t find their treatment here nearly as offensive.
The cast does a fine job telling this story. Sammy Zeisel is particularly strong as Melchior Gabor. Under Mr. Ohringer’s astute direction, Melchior is a charismatic, confident kid who understands how to use his attributes to entice others. He becomes an object of sexual attraction for both the lovely Wendla (played with charm and honesty by Charlotte Cannon), as well as for his close friend Moritz (the handsome and dynamic Nick Hyland). When everything goes to hell, Melchior realizes the consequences of his actions. All three of these actors, primarily due to the prominence of their characters in this story, stand out and offer earnest, realistic portayals. Other exciting performances come from graceful Ella Pennington as the free-spirited, hippie Ilse, Glenna Brucken as a heartbreaking, insecure and physically abused Martha, and David Gallo for his sensuous, handsome Ernst, who discovers his true gay feelings for the titillating, seductively good-looking Hans (nicely played by Derek Herman).
This is a very well-directed production of a little-known play that’s been newly reinvented for today’s playgoer. Wedekind’s drama still carries the necessary bite and a warning that ignorance isn’t always necessarily bliss. Young people don’t need more pressure in their lives; they need love, care and education from their elders to succeed in this world. Just as when this play was written, Jeremy Ohringer’s contemporary adaptation explores all the angst, insecurities and emotional needs of teenagers which, unfortunately, are still much the same as in 1891. The new Fearless Theatre Collaborative premiers with a cautionary tale that contains enough bite and sizzle to satisfy today’s audiences, while showing promise for additional excellent productions to come.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 9-26 by the Fearless Theatre at the Charnel House, 3421 W. Fullerton Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available at the box office or by going to www.fearlesstheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.