By Pat Launer
People always wonder how theater critics can see the same show over and over again. It isn’t always easy, but some plays are simply (or complexly) brilliant and timeless (Hello, Hamlet! I’m talking to you!). And others, some older, some more recent, just find a soft spot in my heart and I always welcome a revisit. When that re-view includes a whole new perspective on the piece, I’m in drama heaven.
Well, I just came down from the clouds after seeing the Deaf West Theatre production of “Spring Awakening.”
I’ve seen the mind-blowing, Tony Award-winning 2006 rock musical six or seven times, and though I was thrilled and excited by the national touring production, I felt a whole new understanding, insight and connection to the piece this time.
Los Angeles-based Deaf West, founded in 1991, works wonders with musicals (this is their fifth; their glorious re-imagining of “Big River” went on to Broadway, garnering a Tony nomination and four Drama Desk Awards). Now, in association with the Forest of Arden, a collective dedicated to immersive theater, they’ve created a stunning bilingual production that presents a seamless melding of sign lanuage, movement, music and voice, spotlighting the particular relevancies to the Deaf community.
Based on the provocative, controversial (and frequently banned) 1891 drama by Frank Wedekind, “Spring Awakening,” with music by alt-rocker Duncan Sheik and poetic, internal monologue lyrics by Steven Sater, tells a harrowing coming-of-age tale, as teens in a repressive German society, grievously misunderstood by their elders, try to figure out who they are and how to deal with their budding sexuality. A century ahead of its time, the still-inflammatory story touches on sexual and physical abuse, nascent homosexual leanings, teen pregnancy, abortion and suicide in youth.
By making both the painfully naive ingénue, Wendla, and the deeply troubled Moritz deaf, the company underscores the marginalization and the communication chasm deaf kids often have with their hearing parents (the case in 90% of deaf offspring). The lead deaf actors (Sandra Mae Frank and Daniel N. Durant) and their speaking, singing counterparts (Katie Boeck and Rustin Cole Sailors) are superb. Sometimes the two parts of the character interact; one may goad or encourage the other. The stark, hollow voices of the deaf actors are occasionally used to chilling effect. The ASL translations perfectly mirror the stunning lyricism or the raw, X-rated explosions of the original lyrics.
As another means of interpretation, there are projections of certain lines – flung across the walls of the cavernous Rosenthal Theatre. And sometimes, to highlight the communication breakdowns, there is untranslated sign only, leaving the hearing audience momentarily adrift, as is so often the case for deaf people in a hearing world.
Trumping all these skillful strategies, the central focus, as it should be, is the drama of the piece – the longing, the loss, the pain and tentative love – conveyed so strongly by this young, vibrant cast of 25, under the magnificent, ingenious direction of Michael Arden, with marvelous choreographed moves by Spencer Liff. (Interesting side-note: Arden made his Broadway acting debut in Deaf West’s “Big River,” and having performed here
Also amazing is the fact that the central role of Melchior, the handsome young thinker, doubter and iconoclast, is sung and signed by Austin McKenzie in his professional theater debut. He trained as an ASL interpreter, and his sign is outstanding, but he also has a wonderful singing voice, and he captures the angst, anger and passion of the character with impressive agility.
The terrific 10-piece band features violin, viola, cello and harp, under the astute musical direction of Jared Stein. The lighting (Travis Hagenbuch) is also noteworthy, impeccably complementing mood and emotion.
Arden has made many electrifying and enlightening directorial choices. For example, the kids are dressed in modern clothes, warming up onstage before the show begins; then, as we watch, they changing into their restrictive school uniforms, showing the undeniable link between present and past. And at the end, in a poignant final image, the wounded young people head upstage, disappearing behind a curtain, as they sing the hopeful “Song of Purple Summer” and leave the punitive, clueless adults behind.
Deaf West makes the beauty, the poignance and the heart-rending agony of “Spring Awakening” palpable, emotional and irresistible.
- The Deaf West Theatre production of “Spring Awakening” has been extended through Oct. 19, in the Rosenthal Theater at Inner City Arts, 720 Kohler St in downtown Los Angeles
- Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 3 p.m.
- Running Time: 2 hours
- Tickets ($30-$34) are available at 818-762-2998 or online at www.deafwest.org
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at www.patteproductions.com.
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