Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: Deaf West and Michael Arden Discover a New SPRING AWAKENING

L-R: Ali Stroker, Sandra Mae Frank, Miles Barbee, Austin
McKenzie and Joshua Castille. Photos by Tate Tullier

Director Michael Arden gives the word discovery new meaning in a spectacular production of Steven Sater (book & lyrics) and Duncan Sheik’s (music) Spring Awakening based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 expressionist play. Arden, who has had a long partnership with Deaf West that goes back to Big River, which played in LA and on Broadway, stages the controversial musical in a triangular black box at the Inner City Arts complex in downtown Los Angeles. 

In it, deaf and hearing actors and musicians work together to tell the story of a group of teens whose transition from adolescence to adulthood, and the sexual awakening they go through, is made even more difficult by the very parents and teachers in whose care they are entrusted. Unwilling, or unable, to communicate with the youths, they deny them what they so desperately need – love, answers, protection – and in the end, everyone suffers the consequences. It deals with topics that are as important today, and often as difficult to discuss, as they were in 1891, such as rape, incest, masturbation, teen suicide, and abortion. And with this casting, it also comments on the gap between hearing parents and deaf children, who face yet another level of difficulty in communicating.

Arden’s gift for knowing how to express the emotion in a scene or a song begins with his sensational casting. What is so terrific about these partnerships is how beautifully they come together to create rich characters that literally spring to multi-dimensional life. Wendla, a deaf actor played by Sandra Mae Frank, is partnered with a hearing actor, Katie Boeck, who speaks and sings her songs, and plays acoustic guitar. Daniel N. Durant, another deaf actor, plays Moritz, with Rustin Cole Sailors voicing his role and also playing electric guitar. The partners often interact and consult with each other as scenes unfold and never is there a moment when the speaking actor’s eyes aren’t riveted on his or her deaf counterpart, which makes everything so much more sensual.

Together, Frank’s innocent earnestness, and the sweetness and simplicity of Boeck's singing voice, create a character that is instantly sympathetic. Their pain becomes the audience’s pain and we feel for them from their first hypnotic moments on opposite sides of a bottomless mirror. Likewise does Sailors bring an edgy raw vulnerability to Durant’s Moritz in a pairing that is poignant beyond words. One word – failed – flashes on the walls growing larger and larger until it finally takes over his life. It is a black and white world that surrounds these characters, down to the chalk boxes drawn on the floor which limit their playing area and then are swept away in Act II when all the lines start to blur, and to see it in the design metaphorically expressed is chilling. Arden’s staging of Moritz’s last act is unlike any production of Spring Awakening I’ve ever seen and flips the situation into something beautiful and wholly unexpected, even if you know what turn the story takes.

And it continues all the way down the line. Martha’s song, one of the best of the lot, gave me chills. Kathryn Gallagher’s voice has an underground coffeehouse feel to it, the kind that lets out heartbreak a little at a time, and the connection between her poignant onstage character, Treshelle Edmond, and Gallagher singing from the faraway stairs, was mesmerizing. Daniel David Stewart plays piano and voices the role of Ernst as Joshua Castille brings to life the naïve young man who eventually gives in to Hanschen’s (Joseph Haro) advances. More sublime moments as Arden insinuates a ménage à trois between them. 

In every case, Arden chooses a voice that completes the onstage character in a unique and compelling manner. Then musical director Jared Stein mixes all of the textures together to create a fresh sound that is immensely satisfying. And while each combination is beautiful and unexpected, it is the deaf actors’ performances that are even more breathtaking.

As the actors sign - passionately, lyrically, and completely open to their emotions - it creates a new kind of choreography; one that is so much a physical part of these characters that it is impossible to imagine the production without it. The need to communicate is fierce.

Spencer Liff also blends the ASL into his choreography with incredibly moving results. A song like “Bitch of Living” is always explosive but Liff combines disciplines for an even bigger punch. During Melchior (Austin McKenzie) and Wendla’s first meeting in the meadow, cast members’ bodies intertwine to form the tree behind them, which stands like a massive statue, intoxicating and voyeuristic in its silent presence behind their sweet, simple scene.

This production is full of sensuality, and not only the sexual kind. Undulating shapes move in waves across the wall to the hypnotic melody of “Touch Me;” Hanschen masturbates while female cast members with their arms threaded through his, sign; and a church procession, complete with the heady smell of incense, encircles Melchior and Wendla in their first sexual encounter in the hay loft. It is the contrast that is so thrillingly provocative.  

A critical turning point happens in the first act when Wendla begs Melchior to beat her with a switch because she’s “never felt anything.” It is a moment that breaks something open in both of them, changing them forever. She may never have felt anything before but you’ll feel everything watching this Spring Awakening.

Lauren Patten makes bold choices in a strong characterization of the wayward Ilse, accompanied by a dusky, warm singing voice that, once again, comes as a wonderful surprise, given her willowy frame. Even Natacha Roi and the deaf/hearing partners of Troy Kotsur and Daniel Marmion, who cover all the mothers, fathers, teachers and authority figures, bring a unique contrasting element to the desperate young people around them. Kotsur says more with a single look than most actors do with all of their senses combined.

Which brings me to young leading man, Austin McKenzie - charismatic, innocently handsome, and blessed with a gorgeous voice - mark my words…Melchior is his first professional role and this young man is going to be a star.  He has that intangible quality, that mysterious something that the stage light loves (which means the camera will too) and that draws the viewer to him naturally. He has “It” and the fact that he can act and sing beautifully is even better. Like I said, Michael Arden gives discovery a new meaning.

Its pretty obvious that I adored this production, for so many reasons that I hope you will discover for yourself. If you go to the theatre like I do - looking for magic and hoping to be moved - I can recommend no better production than Deaf Wests Spring Awakening.

Sandra Mae Frank, Treshelle Edmond, Natacha Roi (seated), Katie Boeck  (on guitar), 
Lauren Patten, Amelia Hensley (obscured), Alexandra Winter, Ali Stroker

L-R: Daniel Marmion, Joshua Castille, Jimmy Bellinger,
Austin McKenzie, Joseph Haro, Daniel Durant

Treshelle Edmond, Lauren Patten and Ali Stroker

Jimmy Bellinger, Joseph Haro, Daniel David Stewart, Daniel Durant
(standing on bed), Joshua Castille, Miles Barbee

Sandra Mae Frank (front), with (L-R) Amelia Hensley,
Joseph Haro, Treshelle Edmond

L-R: Daniel David Stewart, Joseph Haro, Joshua Castille, Miles Barbee,
Sean Grandillo, Austin McKenzie, Jimmy Bellinger

SPRING AWAKENING
September 7 - November 9, 2014
Rosenthal Theater at Inner City Arts
720 Kohler Street in downtown L.A.
(just south of the Arts District)
Reservations: (818) 762-2998 or www.deafwest.org

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