“Burned and Banned” is the titillating theme of Marvell Rep’s continuing season, dedicated to the kind of plays that have caused sufficient scandal to leave a sulfurous odor in their wake. Marvell offers two, running alternating nights at the TGB Theater: Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance and Frank Wedekind’s Spring’s Awakening. In the century since these were written, both have been the repeated objects of censure and lawsuits for their frank depictions of sexuality. But directors drawn to famous provocateurs of the last 200 years (Ibsen and Strindberg also come to mind) still grapple with the unavoidable question: How relevant—and shocking—are they for audiences today?
For Spring’s Awakening, Marvell Rep’s Lenny Leibowitz and Amy Estes have taken one firm step in the direction of their contemporary audience. Wedekind’s play, written in fin de siècle Munich, is subtitled A Children’s Tragedy, and while it would have been inconceivable, in the playwright’s day, to cast adolescents in the roles of his sexually frustrated teenage protagonists, that is precisely what Marvell has done. The 20-strong cast, led by former Billy Elliot star Giuseppe Bausilio, consists overwhelmingly of minors (average age: 15 years) too young to watch the R-rated movie that the play would be if it were translated to film.
Paradoxically, however, Marvell’s use of children means there is nothing particularly explicit about the staged action. The play follows a group of schoolboys overwhelmed by harsh schooling and raging hormones and their similarly repressed girl friends, as they are driven to suicide, death, and spiritual destruction by an oppressive society. Wedekind’s text reads like a register of vice squad complaints, but under Leibowitz’s direction, the play’s sexual acts are either abbreviated, in the scenes of rape and sado-masochism, or, in the instances of junior wanking, provide the production’s comic highlights. That is not to say that this is “Wedekind light.” The first half of the show is gripped by an almost palpable sexual tension, while the second climaxes in a scene involving two boys engaging in sexual foreplay that is all the more powerful—and impressive—for the ages of the actors.
Rather, it is precisely as a “children’s tragedy” that Marvell Rep makes sense of this once morally scandalous play. What shocks is no longer the teenage sex, but rather the treatment received by those teenagers at the hands of parents and schoolteachers who demand they grow up without helping them grow into adulthood. Wedekind’s play was always an indictment of bourgeois values; Marvell drives the message home with all its modern implications, by putting these fresh-faced teens on stage next to their polished adult counterparts, who in the roles of Professors Sticky-Tongue, Fly Catcher, etc., demonstrate that morality is much less an ethical code than the prerogative of the ruling class. Tijana Bielajac’s set, more autumn night than spring morn, points ever to the disastrous conclusion, which Marvell, faithful to Wedekind’s text, paints with too literal strokes. In addition to Mr. Bausilio, as the earnest Melchior, Lizzy DeClement and Dalton Harrod, as his tragically stifled friends Wendla and Moritz, lead the excellent youth cast.