Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening begins with a dress that the character Wendla’s mother wants to lengthen to hide her daughter’s emerging sexuality. In The Spring Awakening Project (TSAP), by Jason Sebacher in collaboration with director Keith Paul Medelis and a fine six-member cast, that dress narrates the scene where Wendla loses her virginity.
A talking dress isn’t out of place in the world of iconic figures peopling this play about lies parents tell their children; Santa, the stork, and the tooth fairy make appearances here, as do characters from the grave, sometimes in nightmares or fantasies. Characters, alive and dead, speak freely to one another, voicing their confusions about how babies are made and whether masturbation is a sin. What is love? Will everyone abandon me if I’m gay? Should I kill myself today? Or tomorrow? Is death any more lonely than life?
The Spring Awakening Project is loosely based on the Wedekind work that shocked 1891 Germans, when adolescent sexuality wasn’t acknowledged. Today, a beautifully realized gay love scene doesn’t shock theatergoers–at least in Ann Arbor. Sebacher developed TSAP partly from journal entries written by actors in this production, which in turn were inspired by thematically related prompts Medelis gave them during rehearsals. Partly to prevent actors from wallowing in their own experiences, a trademark of the self-indulgent Method school of acting, Medelis cast actors in roles created from the experiences of others in the cast. In this reimagining of Spring Awakening, Sebacher also drew dialogue from Wedekind and from his own imagination, and he created a new structure for all of it.
While Wedekind harshly indicts the older generation, these artists have a more generous attitude. In the Wedekind play, a father disowns his dead son while a headmaster assures him the boy wouldn’t have been promoted anyhow; in the Sebacher version, parents are more ignorant than cruel, but parental pressure and rejection of sexuality precipitates suicide, rape, and a botched abortion nonetheless.
Caleb Kruzel’s music, evocative and sometimes ominous, underscores this dark story. The strong lyrics are by Kruzel, Austin Michael Tracy, and Steve Dudas.
TSAP began in space provided at the Performance Network Theater (PNT) in June and has reopened at Pot and Box, a flower store on Felch, where it plays through August 2 (see calendar listing). Scenic designer Janine Woods Thoma suggests both an outdoor landscape, with trees and leaves cut from journal pages and indoor areas in a tiny space. In this frankly theatrical production, lack of realistic detail is a plus. At the start, actors dressed in street clothes offer fruit to spectators, then change into costumes before the audience.
This is the first offering of the New Theater Project, founded and directed by Medelis, the latest entrant to a thriving off-PNT scene. Some scenes soar, and though the production is rough-hewn in a couple of spots, in all, it is well worth seeing.