November 23, 2011
Young people doing provocative theatrical things. It doesn’t get more thrilling than that, a rousing reminder that theater will survive, with another generation injecting fresh adrenaline to keep “the fabulous invalid” alive.
Some excellent cases in point: American Rose Theatre and the students at UCSD.
I was pleased to have caught both casts of American Rose’s production of that heart-stopping, groundbreaking rock musical (based on a 120 year-old play), “Spring Awakening,” which won eight Tony Awards in 2007, including Best Musical.
Directed and choreographed by Ira Bauer-Spector (an SDSU Musical Theater MFA alum), the production packed a major wallop. The two casts were divided into high school and college-age young people, though most of the high schoolers appeared in both ensembles. It was fascinating to see the differences – in energy, sensibility and experiential sophistication. I liked both, but they were decidedly different.
The trio of leads in the younger cast looked, well, young – which was perfect. They were the exact age of the kids in Frank Wedekind’s 1891 (hair-raising, long-banned) original. They brought an aching honesty to the story, which focuses on the anxieties and perils of budding sexuality, including such minefields as masturbation, parental sexual abuse, pregnancy, botched abortion and teen suicide. They seemed fresh and fragile, and as if maybe they didn’t even fully understand all the issues they were singing about, in the marvelous score by Duncan Sheik, with poetic, harsh, other-worldly and heartbreaking lyrics by Steven Sater.
The three central kids, blond and Aryan-looking, fit right into the play’s setting: a punishingly strict school in 19th century Germany. Ian Brininstool acted and sang beautifully as smart, handsome, precocious Melchior, the only one who really knows anything about sex – but not enough to keep him out of trouble. His main squeeze, Wendla, was gorgeously played by striking, mega-talented Elizabeth Morse. And as the tortured Moritz, who doesn’t know what to do with his raging hormones, Dylan Hoffinger was understated and shattering.
The college-age students brought their own dynamic: more knowing, more edgy, more sexually dangerous. Kevin Koppman-Gue’s effective turn as Melchior added a dollop of acidity to his insatiable curiosity. Nadia Guevara, in Bauer-Spector’s surprising stroke of color-blind casting, had a quicksilver energy as Wendla, insistent and frustrated in her desire for wisdom, experience and punishment. Trevor Sanderson was a marvel as Moritz – emotionally wild, jangly, intense, tortured.
Very satisfying performances all around. The stylized movements worked better with the older cast than the younger (especially the odd, angular hand/arm positioning). Bauer-Spector himself played all the Adults in the younger cast. It was genius on the part of Sater to have all the adults in the kids’ lives portrayed by two actors (one male, one female), showing how interchangeable they are in the chaotic world of adolescence. The men were commendably played by John Whitley-Gibson in the older cast; the women were enacted by Jamie Channel in the older cast, Krysti Litt in the younger. Both ensembles featured an excellent Ilse, the young girl gone astray, whose parents evict her (Kyrsten Hafso, Kelly Prendergast). In the older cast, Shaun Tuazon was a vocal standout as the oversexed piano student, Georg.
The set (Loren Salter), costumes (Janet Pitcher) and lighting (Michelle Caron) were outstanding, as was the 6-piece orchestra, led by Patrick Marion, which featured a warm, yearning cello in addition to violin, viola, bass, keyboards, drums and guitar. Atypical orchestration for a rock musical, which is one of the reasons this show sings an inimitable song.
The ensemble in both casts was excellent. And most impressively, all the participants did something about what they learned from this theatrical experience. They created an “It Gets Better” video, in support of The Trevor Project, the national organization that provides hope, support, crisis intervention and suicide prevention for LGBT and other disaffected or bullied youth (viewable on youtube). The stories told by each cast or crew member were heartfelt and hope-filled. That provided the icing on an already rich, filling, spiritually nourishing cake.
No spiritual nourishment at all in “The Thugs,” a deeply disturbing, enigmatic little work that could make you lose your appetite. It’s one of Canadian-born Adam Bock’s three workplace plays. In 2008, Cygnet Theatre produced the West coast premiere of “The Receptionist,” a twisted, creepy comedy. Now along come the undergraduates of UCSD Theatre and Dance to present “The Thugs,” which isn’t very comical at all, but ratchets up the sinister factor to a fever pitch.
In its Off Broadway premiere, the play won a 2006 Obie Award. The highly enigmatic, unnerving piece is set in an urban law office, where a bevy of bored temps whisper behind the sharp-tonged supervisor’s back and speculate on the weird disappearances; it seems that one or two employees on other floors of this high-rise office building have died. Or maybe they were killed. The residents of the ninth floor are terrified. One gets marched out, and we don’t know if she’ll ever come back. There’s an eeriness to the dialogue, too, which is written in ominous stops, starts, hesitations, incomplete sentences and long, fraught pauses. The mystery of the drama is never solved, which leaves us hanging, just like the dehumanized characters. It’s chilling, nightmarish, and a bit absurd (less so if you’ve worked in a mind-numbing, soul-robbing office).
In his Director’s Note, Los Angeles-based director Eric Hunicutt quoted an apt excerpt from an Elvis Costello song: “Welcome to the workin’ week/Oh I know it don’t thrill you; I hope it don’t kill you.”
In that spirit, eight UCSD undergrads thrust themselves whole hog into the work at hand, and the result was an ensemble of terrific performances. Most eccentric and other-worldly was Anna Pearce as the outcast, Mercedes. But all were wonderful. And the design work was exceptional: Faith Swickard’s set is a marvel of gray, Spartan anonymity; the lighting (Tim Nottage) and sound (Samuel Naccach) really contributed to the mounting sense of dread.
What ties these two admirable (now closed) efforts together? In the Winter quarter, UCSD will present the original Wedekind play, “Spring Awakening” (2/3-11, 2012). I wouldn’t dream of missing it.