The Earth moves

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  April 28, 2009
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SPRING AWAKENING: The play is somewhat lumbering and sloppily constructed, but the teen actors prove adept.
Frank Wedekind dipped into Pandora's box years before penning the famed Lulu plays that made a screen legend of Louise Brooks. Peek into the German playwright's first work — the 1891 Spring Awakening, inspiration for the Tony-winning rock musical — and you find not just surrealism and teen spirit but sado-masochism, rape, abortion, homo-eroticism, and an on-stage circle jerk. It's no wonder the thing wasn't put on uncensored for 75 years! Times have changed, and in the wake of the success of the musical, Zeitgeist Stage Company is producing the original (at the BCA Plaza through May 9), with an age-appropriate cast as the gaggle of hormonal 14-year-olds in a repressed German hamlet.

Artistic director David J. Miller is at the helm of the feverish production, which uses his adaptation of a new translation by Reinhold A. Mahler that veers between colloquialism spiced by profanity and a formalism that's particularly jarring in the scene in which three night-shirted youths try to keep themselves from whacking off to female nudes. Miller also designed the sylvan, BCA-basement-defying glade of a set, complete with verdant Astroturf and trees on the verge of bud, for this 19th-century precursor to Splendor in the Grass.

The 27-year-old playwright is obviously on the side of the kids, most of whom are under tremendous academic pressure, kept ridiculously in the dark about sex, and regarded as suspicious loiterers at the crossroads of degeneracy and "the moral order." With the exception of a couple of mothers, the adults — with names like Professor Tonguetwister and Reverend Baldbelly — are stammering, oppressive cartoons whom Miller portrays as less mature and more quarrelsome than the kids. A meeting of a quartet of begowned professors gathered to expel a student deteriorates into a melee amid which the only civil presence in the room is the teenage Melchior, who's about to be axed from academe for providing written, graphically illustrated sex education for his more agitated chum Moritz, who was driven to suicide — though probably not by the sex tips.

Spring Awakening is seldom revived, and I, for one, am glad to have had a chance to see it before it sang (though the Zeitgeist production has some aptly chosen classical music). Miller makes a case for the play, and the teen actors prove adept at conveying the painful sincerity and confusion of their more sheltered, unplugged-in 19th-century counterparts. That said, the play is somewhat lumbering and sloppily constructed, and the final scene, set in a graveyard, suggests the dramaturgical love child of Our Town and Dawn of the Dead. But Wedekind was straining in new directions, and how else do we get anywhere?

What Tom Stoppard might have done with the premise of Picasso at the Lapin Agile (presented by New Repertory Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts through May 10)! In the fashion of the razzle-dazzling Brit's Travesties, the facile 1993 comedy by Steve Martin gloms onto historical coincidence and tries to make something of it. It's 1904 in a bohemian bar in Montmartre, where the young, unknown Albert Einstein and the young, barely known Pablo Picasso come across each other and get to jawing about the similar leaps of imagination that open new frontiers in art and science. As the play puts it, "The 20th century has to start somewhere, so why not now?"

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