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Words of Wanting; Deaf West’s “Spring Awakening” at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre

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By Erik Jonathan Shuler (@ErikJShuler)
The tender intimacies laced through the story of Spring Awakening have an enduring and expanding magic. The original text by Frank Wedekind was written in 1891 as a contemporary commentary on the time. It revealed the tragic course of social and sexual oppression through the lives of several German adolescents in a small, conservative town. The subject resurfaced with surprising relevance in 2006 as a Broadway musical by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik, connecting with a new audience by way of its accessible rock/pop score. Less than a decade after the original’s closing, the magic has been reawakened at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, where the Deaf West Theatre’s production finds higher stakes in the urgency of the piece, and delicately decorates the message onstage with hands, bodies, voices, and instruments to create a groundbreaking new ideal of what theatre can achieve.

The charm of this production is held in the cast’s ability to create strong bonds of community–with each other and with the audience–using a limitless source of vehicles for communicating. In the spirit of Deaf West’s mission as a company, half of the cast members are non-hearing actors. This would initially seem to be a great hurdle in staging a Broadway musical, but Michael Arden’s direction and collaboration with the cast proved it to be an opportunity. All members of the cast, hearing and non-hearing, use American Sign Language to communicate with each other, and to emote the text and music to the audience. For Deaf performers, like lead actress Sandra Mae Frank (Wendla), it is a way to share their interpretation of a piece that is usually restricted to a hearing cast. From the first phrase of the opening song, “Mama Who Bore Me,” Frank’s strong desire and yearning to portray the character fills the theatre with an unrivaled passion, flowing through her face and hands. The passion is mirrored by Katie Boeck, who stands alongside Frank and accompanies the performance as the “Voice of Wendla,” guitar in hand. This image sets the magical tone for the production. First, and foremost, as with many forms of media that attempt to communicate a message from a hearing person to the deaf, or vise-versa, the revival of Spring Awakening is not a group of actors with translators or interpreters. The actors, like Frank and Boeck, work together as one to relate a unified idea. In one moment–in one line–, “No sleep in heaven or Bethlehem,” for instance, a thought is being shared in an overwhelming medley of forms; the emotions of a pained face, the graceful hands of a deaf performer, the clear voice of a singer, the simple chords on a guitar. One thought from a group that communicates in different ways, shared with an audience that receives information in equally different ways.

Arden uses silence as a common space. The show opens and closes with beautiful stage pictures and actions that celebrate the communal understanding we can come to in stillness. Hearing and deaf, we all receive a moment of silence and stillness in the same capacity; we are one in that moment. That sense of community is carried throughout the piece. Spencer Liff incorporates the idea into his choreography, celebrating the ways we can communicate with each other, using words and signs, or simply with the postures of our bodies. Many of the signs are heightened and celebrated by the entire cast in the choreography to show that mutual understanding and deep inter-connectivity so beautifully manufactured by Arden and Liff.

Dane Laffrey’s scenic design provides a beautiful playground for the story to unfold. The large, domineering stone arches that represent the character’s homes and schools are hollow, lonely, and cold. The teenagers receive no empathy from their surroundings. They are alone with their struggles and the changes they are experiencing with no one and nothing but each other to blindly navigate through the world. They must use each other as crutches and confidants, much like the performers must rely on each other to communicate their needs and wantings. Laffrey’s costume design works toward the same end. The actors begin and end the show–the communal stillness–in the freeing, innocent whites of their underclothes; their true identities. But the action of the story and the oppression by their elders confines them in the stiff uniformity of suits and ties; stockings and hair ribbons. Any deviation, one might assume, would be failure.

The cast offers a phenomenal level of support, and does a brilliant job in sharing the story with each other. Daniel N. Durant reinvents the character of Moritz. The original text of the script seems to support the image of an even greater alienation towards Moritz because he is deaf, and the stakes of failure are exponentially increased. His trembling and awkward physicality is a sharp contrast to Alex Boniello (Voice of Moritz) and his rock star persona; the confidence and sense of defiance that Durant’s character yearns for. Durant accomplishes this confidence in act two, as his character escapes the oppression of German society, abandoning the rules, and his own life. Durant is exceptional, and his overshadowed strength creates a strong connection between him and the audience.

Austin P. McKenzie, as the central character of Melchior, has a difficult track throughout the show. He serves as a bridge between worlds; trying to connect the youth with the adults, finding a common ground for signing in a school that seems to prefer lip readings, and coming to terms with his feelings for an “off limits” Wendla. McKenzie, who is making his Broadway debut, is the perfect man for the job. His boyish charm and committed vocal talents make him easily relatable; the heavy amount of ASL he uses throughout the show makes him as easy to connect with the hearing as the deaf. His eagerness mirrors the arch of the show, and we follow his unquenched expectations and learn our lessons through him. His relationship with Sandra Mae Franks beautifully performed Wendla is eerie and emotional. The challenges the couple portray together are real. Krysta Rodriquez (Ilse) brings an unexpected joy to her dark, misused role. She is almost waifish as she haunts the halls around the students, and heartbreaking in the weight she carries as her character. Her voice compliments the role, effortlessly piercing through the carefully controlled chaos around her.

There are many opportunities for standouts in the ensemble and the cast does not disappoint. Andy Mientus is forbidden pleasure as the rough lover, Hanschen. His sexually charged signing is explosive, and his sly physicality a treat to watch. Threshelle Edmond meekly breaks hearts with her role as the abused schoolgirl, Martha. We are traumatized by the sadness in her eyes during “The Dark I Know Well.” Ali Stroker is an undeniable scene stealer with her quirky sexuality, which she exudes while catapulting herself gymnastically across the stage from her period-appropriate wheelchair.

The adult actors work well together, creating the dominating mass of oppression in the form of parents and teachers. Russell Harvard and Patrick Page are an impenetrable wall of tradition, unmoved by the pleas of their children. Harvard is a great presence for Daniel Durant to work off of as Moritz’ father, and painfully dismisses and embarrasses him to a disastrous end. Camryn Manheim adds a nice current of much desired comedy, while maintaining the harsh realities of her role as Wendla’s lost and misguiding mother. Marlee Matlin, a beautiful and elegant force to be seen on stage, finds heart in her character, but appropriately loses strength as she is combatted by the sternness of her generation.

The incredible production that fills the room and establishes a painfully beautiful world is fortunate to be in the caring hands of director Michael Arden, but the piece is clearly a collaboration of a hardworking and dedicated group of artists. The process is admirable and astonishing; the ASL masters who reimagined and translated the popular text, the actors who crossed invisible boundaries to communicate and connect, the impassioned designers who created a lens through which they discovered a common ground, and the director and choreographer who together experimented with the words our bodies can tell–amplifying the story, deepening its colors and bringing out new humanity in its message. The cast and crew brings life to each moment of an occasionally redundant, though gorgeous story and score, with bravery. The production, which plays at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre through January 24th, establishes new possibilities and standards for the kind of theatre that can be mounted in a commercial house, the kind of message that can be told, and the audience they can reach and bring together.

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Center On The Aisle -- or #COTA) for short -- was founded by theater expert, Steve Schonberg in 2014, and the site now boasts a team of 15 expert writers and reviewers. Steve created the site to help casual theatergoers easily access informative and entertaining content to help them engage more with the theater, and make confident and informed decisions when selecting shows. With this mission, the #COTA team applies their deep theater knowledge and attendance at hundreds of shows a year to create the site's content. That's quite a task! Covering Broadway, off-Broadway, cabaret, dance, music and more, the #COTA team provides a range of valuable perspectives to inform and engage readers. After all, the theater is part of our history, heritage and cultural identity - it should be engaged in as often as possible. Welcome, again, to #COTA and please come again.

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