Disclaimer: I know I am hard on this show. I love Stillpointe, every show I’ve seen I’ve walked out the door reaffirmed in my decision to dedicate my life to the arts. They are that kind of company. This was a fluke production, and not indicative of what I know they can do, of what I have seen them do. I could have watered down my views of this production to make it easier on them, but to do so would have been disrespectful to the very artists who have inspired me time and time again. Do not interpret my thoughts for this specific production, as my feelings for the company or people as a whole.
Spring Awakening at Stillpointe theatre began their opening night, which was the same day the U.S. Senate voted to push through the nomination of sexual assaulter Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, with director Ryan Haase instructing the audience to “forget all the craziness outside and just be here with the show.” A strange and privileged thing to say considering the day and the piece at hand.
Spring Awakening, a musical based on the 1891 German play “Spring’s Awakening” by Frank Wedekind, concerns a group of teenagers discovering their sexuality in a patriarchal, sexually oppressed society. It deals with a spectrum of issues such as suicide, rape, sexual coercion, incest, masturbation, homosexuality, sadomasochism, and most importantly adults unwilling to guide their children through these issues. The play has time and time again been lauded for its ability to stare directly as these issues and unflinchingly portray the beauty and grotesquerie in them. This production of Spring Awakening however, seemed to be a sanitized version designed to be easily digested instead of unfalteringly provocative.
While there were many issues with this production, they all pale in comparison to how the character Moritz Stiefel was handled. Moritz is a character who is so overtaken by thoughts of the female form that he begins to honestly believe there is something wrong with him, especially when he experiences wet dreams or urges to have sex. His society has led him to feel shame for these thoughts so he internalizes that shame to the point where he is a walking manifestation of anxiety and depression until finally, after failing at every attempt to find hope, he takes his own life. Moritz at times needs to be played as the comic relief and at times played with boundless emotional depth, but he must always be played truthfully. Nick Fruit’s interpretation of the character was a caricature of these mental illnesses, a portrayal that bordered on offensive. His histrionics were unbelievable and diminished the seriousness of these conditions. He seemed to be (especially at the beginning of the piece) going for laughs instead of living in the character and finding the comedy that way. That’s something you can get away with when portraying a character that doesn’t have the burden of carrying such a sensitive and important storyline.
However, Fruit’s interpretation can be forgiven. It is not an easy role to play and he does manage to occasionally find resonance with his struggle. No, the real injustice when it comes to Mortiz is Haase’s directing choice.
It took me a 30 second google search of “how to safely portray suicide” to find literally hundreds of resources that give help in how to guide the depiction of suicide for theatre and film. The World Health Organization states that graphically showing, or even describing in detail, a suicide is proven to drastically increase the likelihood of someone watching, who is already experiencing suicidal thoughts, to attempt suicide themselves. This production of Spring Awakening not only graphically shows Mortiz’s suicide, but also treats the body and funeral scene with an alluring pageantry. This graphic depiction of suicide and the moments after, is not only artistically self-serving, but ultimately irresponsible as it has the potential to endanger those who see the play. Haase has either not bothered to research how to handle this important material, or he did research it and ignored what he found. Either way Mr. Haase ultimately needs to seriously examine it if he is up to the task of holding the power of directing these important and delicate stories.
This entire production was rife with problems and setbacks. From a director shift, to a cast shift, to broken legs (literally someone is in a cast), maybe this should have been scrapped somewhere along the way. I give Stillpointe credit for stick-to-it-ivness and follow through, but is it worth the payout in the end?
In addition to treating the sensitive material irresponsibly, Ryan Haase also showed a lack of understanding for the text as a whole. This was most evident during the musical numbers. The show was written by Duncan Shiek and Steven Sater as a response to musicals which break into random songs during the middle of a scene. Their intent was to lean into this trope and use the songs to actually sever the reality these characters are in. “Content dictates form” as Mr. Stephen Sondheim would say, and the content of this show is children unable to communicate with their parents, therefore the form is a musical that provides an alternate reality through songs, where the children are able to express their inner monologues. Haase however attempts to use these songs to push forward the narrative action of the play, treating some songs as dialogue between characters. This simply doesn’t work because of its blatant contradiction to the script. I am all for reinterpreting text (for instance Haase’s cellphone use was a reinterpretation that I felt worked quite nicely most of the time), but there is reinterpreting and there is disrespecting, this production clearly crosses the line at times into disrespecting the text.
Spring Awakening is also famous for its controversial hayloft scene in which, in the original 1891 production, Melchior rapes Wendla. Controversial at the time for its ambiguous depiction of this, it’s unclear if Melchior rapes her or if it is a sadomasochistic session initiated by her, the musical adaptation waters this scene down so that it is no longer a question of whether or not he raped her, but whether or not he sexually coerced her. Melchior tries to advance on Wendla and convince her to have sex with him (keep in mind she has no idea what sex even is or what potential consequences could come from it) and she repeatedly tells him no. He continuously disrespects her “no” until she finally gives him one “yes.” This echoes a previous scene where Melchior tells Moritz what his interpretation of what sex is like for the woman: “Defending yourself until, finally, you surrender and feel Heaven break over you…” This is just a pretty way of saying “50 ‘nos and a ‘yes’ mean ‘yes’”, which is obviously bullshit. We all know any amount of “nos and one yes, is still a no and is still sexual assault! This is important because it shows that even with unlimited access to information, he is just as unequipped for the world as Wendla, whose mother won’t even tell her what sex is.
This production shamelessly appropriates multiple lines from the text such as “No, wait, don’t do it–” from its original purpose of clearly establishing that he is not respecting boundaries, to referring to a game of innocent tag that he initiates. At this point when watching, I threw my hands up and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I have never seen such disregard for a playwright’s words. They removed any doubt that this was a consensual sexual encounter. The whole point of the play is that it is unclear whether or not it is consensual. We as artists have an obligation to tell the story that is truthful, not the one that is easy. Stillpointe theatre decided to tell the story that made them and the audience comfortable. This is directly at odds with the story the text is telling. One has to wonder why there was no intimacy choreographer attached to this project to help truthfully, and safely, tell this story.
We as artists have an obligation to tell the story that is truthful, not the one that is easy. Stillpointe theatre decided to tell the story that made them and the audience comfortable. This is directly at odds with the story the text is telling. One has to wonder why there was no intimacy choreographer attached to this project to help truthfully, and safely, tell this story.
None of this is to say that the production did not have some bright spots. The most striking moment of the show was during the song “Touch Me” a moment where each child is discovering their sexuality on their own terms in their own way, Ilse (a victim of sexual assault by her father) watches from the back. Amber Wood beautifully allows her expressions deteriorate into utter rage at watching her friends get to discover and define their sexuality on their own terms, while she has had that ability stolen from her. It was the most compelling, intelligent, and real approach to the character I have ever seen.
Katie Rey Bogdan also had moments of brilliance during her song with Ilse, “The Dark I Know Well” where they recount their experiences being abused by their respective fathers. The desperation Bogdan invokes is absolutely haunting. I will say the staging (having her run around searching in this darkness) at times worked against her power that she was creating in the song. It distracted and weakened her potential as a performer. Stillness will always be more powerful than movement. But nevertheless Bogdan persisted in finding ways to compellingly tell the story.
One last thing before I go. Every single actor in this production was white. The last two shows I saw at Stillpointe also only had white actors. This is a discouraging trend that I feel needs to be called out. Our theatres are our storytellers and I am getting tired of hearing stories controlled by white voices. There were 15 performers in this show….there is no excuse.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? Don’t bother. There are multiple other productions in this city right now that handle suicide, sexuality, abuse, and all the other topics with significantly more sensitivity and capability. Although Stillpointe can put on a wonderful musical, this one production did not hit all the right notes.
Running through October 20th at Area 405. Running time about two hours and ten minutes with one intermission.