Austin Jones and Bridget Flanery in Spring Awakening(Photo: Cara Reichel)
Austin Jones and Bridget Flanery in Spring Awakening
(Photo: Cara Reichel)
Written in 1891 and considered shocking at the time, Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening still packs a wallop in its examination of the dire consequences of sexual oppression of teenagers by their clueless, strait-laced parents. I first saw the play in a production at the Juilliard School, so long ago that it starred a young Boyd Gaines prior to the start of his professional career. Now, I'm happy to report that Wedekind's devastating work is receiving an excellent production -- in a translation by Ted Hughes from the original German -- by the Prospect Theater Company at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

Given that Wedekind was undoubtedly the first person in history to tackle this subject matter in dramatic form, it's forgivable that the play seems a bit overlong and that certain points are made several times; after all, when you're the first to state an opinion or idea, it's best to repeat it in order to make sure that people understand you. Nowadays, what with the deplorable over-sexualization of even young children through bombarding media images and so on, some might argue that Spring Awakening is hopelessly dated; on the contrary, I'm sure it's still relevant to certain youngsters in certain situations. With just a bit of adaptation, the play could be reset, for example, in present-day America among fundamentalist Christians living in the Bible belt, and it would probably seem like it was written yesterday.

Spring Awakening incorporates several styles of theater, from realism to expressionism, and director Jackson Gay's production for Prospect Theater reflects this. The playing area is a fair-sized space bordered by walls that look like huge, drably painted mattresses, with the floor covered by wood chips. Here unfolds the story of Melchior Gabor, Moritz Steifel, and Wendla Bergman, all of whose parents couldn't be more inadequate in terms of wisdom and guidance. Wendla's mother is so horrified by the very existence of sex that she can't even bring herself to explain the facts of life when her daughter asks her directly. This results in Wendla's pregnancy by Melchior, leads Frau Bergman to arrange an abortion for the girl, which in turn leads to Wendla's death.

There are two major challenges facing any production of Spring Awakening. First, the cast of characters is very large -- though, to some degree, that can be dealt with through the doubling and tripling of roles. Second, it must be very hard to find performers who look and sound believable as teenagers yet who possess the acting skills necessary for these difficult assignments. Truth to tell, the fact that Austin Jones as Melchior, Bridget Flanery as Wendla, and Blake Hackler as Moritz appear to be at least in their late twenties is, initially, a distraction; but the greatest praise I can give the PTC production is that this becomes a non-issue by the third or fourth scene of the play, so excellent are the performances. Together and separately, Jones and Flanery have some very tricky scenes, but they handle them with aplomb

Austin Jones, Bess Wohl, and Blake Hacklerin Spring Awakening(Photo: Cara Richel)
Austin Jones, Bess Wohl, and Blake Hackler
in Spring Awakening
(Photo: Cara Richel)
Though the inability of parents to deal with their offspring's sexuality is the primary theme of Spring Awakening, the play also makes telling points about the crushing academic pressures faced by some adolescents. This tragic state of affairs is embodied in the role of the suicidal Moritz, played with utter brilliance by Hackler. The final scene of the play -- in which Moritz's headless ghost begs his old friend Melchior to join him in the afterlife -- is almost indescribably moving.

The rest of the ensemble cast -- Jeffrey Doornbos, Nicole Dooley, Dara Fisher, Edward O'Blenis, Paul Paglia, Joe Vena, Elisabeth Waterston, Bess Wohl, Tamilla Woodard -- is excellent. Special praise goes to the Frau Bergman of Anna Zastrow, whose skillful German accent I very much appreciated even though it's inconsistent with the rest of the cast's dialects; and Derek Milman, who is absolutely riveting in a graphic masturbation sequence. The Prospect Theater Company production of Spring Awakening continues through November 24, and you should try to catch it if at all possible.