Top left, Adam Cerny and Anastasiya Newkirk as Melchior and Wendla. Top right: Aaron Lord as Moritz and Tina Hayz as Melchior’s Mother (and all other female adults). Bottom right: Cerny as Melchior
When I saw Spring Awakening for the first time, I had no idea what to expect. I knew that it was ‘R’ rated. I had seen on Wikipedia that some of the songs have adult language, and that it is about teenagers exploring the very adult themes of sexuality, suicide, abortion, faith, and doubt. I knew not to bring my daughter, but I had no idea what I was in for.
I had no idea that I would be treated to one of the most emotionally charged, passionate performances I have ever seen. That was 2014, when the Center for Living Arts presented Spring Awakening for the second time. I was so dumbfounded by the performance that for the first time in my life, I saw the same show again on the following weekend.
This time when I saw it, on Opening Night 2016, I had no excuse to be surprised. And yet shocked I was.
Shock is a dangerous word to use when describing art. There is a lot of art out there that is designed to simply shock. It has little value other than to cause disgust, hoping that it draws eyes in the same way that an auto accident draws gapers.
And while there are moments that can be described as shocking, that is never the point. Yes, lyrics like “totally f-ed” (which is sung with passionate, emotional, perfect articulation of a word that rhymes with ‘ducked’), and “it’s the bitch of living,” might give you a jolt. But the point is not to swear – it is to express a rage that rises under the weight of suppression and finally boils over in, dare I say, a climactic release.
Yes, watching a young man beg his Dad for another minute in the bathroom is a little uncomfortable. But the point is to show that the shame that the adults have attached to sexuality. It is to show that privacy is precious, and sometimes hard to come by.
Yes, watching the female cast explore their (totally clothed) bodies with their hands as they sing “Touch Me” made me feel a little like a dirty old man watching something I shouldn’t be watching. But the point is not to arouse. It is to reveal that there are things going on inside which they do not fully understand. Set up by the agonizing first scene of a girl’s mother unable to give even the most basic information about sex and reproduction to her daughter.
Yes, watching the main characters finally give in to their bodies in a passionate moment in the hay loft could be described as shocking. But the point is not voyeurism. A particular choice made by amazing Director Dino Hayz was made to show that these are two young people who care about each other and are doing something that feels natural and good. They are feeling something real for the first time in a culture that has told them over and over again that feeling anything is dangerous.
All of these moments, and more which I did not describe, are incredibly intimate. There are times in the cozy Center for Living Arts theater that some of the actors are literally inches away.
There’s not a moment that the actors can hide. They are there, exposed, even while fully clothed. They are so vulnerable that it brings you to the edge of discomfort. Some highlights:
Myka Waljasper, singing “The Dark I Know Well,” crushes me. Every time. She puts on the character of Martha like a well-worn coat. In both the 2014 and 2016 versions she sang the song beautifully. In 2014, I remember Martha more as brutalized and frightened. This year, she projects bold defiance to survive in the face of brutality.
Noel Huntley plays one of my favorite characters, Ilse. Her “Blue Wind,” comes right after a heartbreaking bit of nostalgia between her and Moritz. We all wish we could go back to their childhood. Back to a simpler time and play pirates. Ilse, who escaped one abusive home to find only an abusive community, sings of the blue wind of autumn, cold and sad. The misery of a lost childhood is clear in both her song and acting. In doing research for this review, I learned that she is 16 years old, and once again – almost a week after seeing the show, I’m shocked.
I imagine that someday I will see a production of Spring Awakening that does not include Aaron Lord as Moritz and Anastasiya Newkirk as Wendla. Frankly, it will be strange.
Lord’s Mortiz is the nervous, hyper-anxious friend of Melchior. The weight of expectations is too much for him. Lord, reprising his role from 2014, makes it feel as if all of Mortiz’s anxiety travels up through his eyes and oozes into his hair. He channels the pre-1995 punk intensity of Billie Joe Armstrong. I half-expected him to break into, “Sometimes I give myself the creeps. Sometimes my mind plays tricks on me,” from Green Day’s ‘Basket Case,’ which was an anthem of my own youth.
When Newkirk is on the stage, it is almost impossible to stop watching her. From her first scene, when she defiantly tells her mother, “You don’t think that I believe in the stork, do you?” to her last, she reveals the heart of the show. The changes she experiences are the emotional center of it all, and Newkirk carries it well.
Adam Cerny gives Melchior a bright-eyed optimism that I hadn’t seen before. In the story, he is the voice of truth. He questions authority, sticks up for his bullied friend, and sees the world for what it could be. Somehow Cerny is able to make this teenager who is wise beyond his years at the same time naïve and joyful. His emotional scenes with Wendla are believable, and his agony and turmoil in the second act is gut-wrenching.
In the end, all of these performances matter only because of the story. It is a story that needs to be told. It is a story that I, as a pastor and father, need to hear. It is a reminder that winds change, no matter how much we wish they wouldn’t. Faithful begin to question. Boys grow into men. Girls grow into women. Grief heals. Grace abounds. And yes, winter turns to spring.
So we must be ready. We must embrace the change, not with lies or easy answers. We must face the truth of pain and struggle if we are ever to live with hope. In the end, the cast sings of the Purple Summer, when the butterfly sings and opens its wings. The Purple Summer, when we can look out in wonder. The Purple Summer, when we can hold onto one another, and allow grace of new life to flow.
Good art makes you feel. Great art makes you change. The story of Spring Awakening is a reminder that I cannot hide pain of change from my girls. I cannot shy away from the tough questions of the youth I am charged with leading. I cannot be another weight of expectations and judgment upon kids who are already shackled. I can decide to either be a part of the cold blue wind, or hold onto the hope of the warm purple summer. I choose grace. Purple has always been a favorite color.
Spring Awakening is playing on Friday and Saturday, March 18 and 19 at 7:00 p.m. at The Center For Living Arts, which is located at 2008 4th Avenue, Rock Island Il. Go to http://centerforlivingarts.org for more information. You can go to the Spring Awakening Quad Cities Facebook page, as well.
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