If this production were one step worse than it is, people would call it a beautiful failure. Director Tom Babe, they would say, tackled a bulky, outdated script with an unholy number of important parts, and not enough time to rehearse the kinks out of all of them.
Well, there are still faults in this production, but they are the faults inspired by ambition. And they were readily forgiven by those who saw the many moments of fine acting and intelligent direction displayed in the Loeb last night. The result can only be called, I suppose, a beautiful success.
Springs Awakening has now reached an awkward age for a play about emotions: it is too old to have much shock value, but too young to work as a period piece: the maunderings of these German bourgeois and adolescents of 1891 are sometimes too painfully reminiscent of some contemporary drama.
I don't know what Babe thinks of the play; one sensed an ambiguous reaction on his part. On the one hand, he has been respectful towards Frank Wedekind, leaving Springs Awakening almost uncut where cutting would have been kind. On the other hand, he has Brechtified the production with prop-changes by actors and a general milling-about on the stage and singing of songs before each of the three acts.
These conventions are designed to break the emotional relationship between the audience and the actors--an odd way to produce a play which deals so exclusively with the power of emotion. Springs Awakening shows three children maturing under the opposing stresses of natural passion and of the strict morality of their parents. The central figure is Melchior (Howard Cutler), an intelligent young man who does not know what to make of his maturity. It leads him to questioning, and to atheism, where his friend Moritz (Toby Hurd) passes through posture after self-pitying posture spilling forth poetic gibberish out of nervous excitement until at last he is led to suicide. Wendla (Lisa Kelley) has an uncontrollable desire to be mistreated by Melchior, and a mother who still talks to her about the stork.
Eventually, he makes her pregnant and she dies from an attempted abortion: visiting her grave at night he is called to suicide by the spirit of Moritz who promises him happiness in cynically laughing from the hereafter at human beings. To counter Moritz, a masked man appears, representing. . .what? Life? Adventure? Complacency? There are suggestions of all three in the script, and one sensed a confusion in Babes handling of the scene. Moritz is supposed to appear carrying his head; he does, but the head on his shoulders has not been covered up, which makes nonsense of the masked man's greeting "Why aren't you wearing your head. The masked man was played by Arthur Friedman, in white tie, top hat, tails, and cape, as well as mask--he was made up to suggest a master of ceremonies, not a representative of the powerful forces that dominate most of this play and that must, I should think, be in part responsible for Melchior's decision to turn away from the grave.
Nor did Cutler's acting suggest a less muddled answer. For so central a character, he has remarkably few lines and I could draw no coherent impression from what he made of them. Hurd, as Moritz, is very close to an excellent performance; in his wavering voice, he implies perfectly the theatrical nature of the 14-year-old poet cynic. I thought, however, that he used gestures and movement remarkably little for so excitable a character. Miss Kelly's Wendla is a fine performance from beginning to end.
These three figures are set off, as Babe sees it, by a chorus of old people--teachers, parents' a priest--who carp at the children's behavior and eventually drive two of them to death and the other close to it. There is also a pack of boys, and three other young girls--about twenty parts, in short, in any of which a bad performance can spoil a scene. Some fine actors have taken on these roles--Emily Levine as Mrs. Gabor, in particular, Mark Ritts as Johnny Rilow, Susan Channing as Ilse, and Patricia Hawkins, who creates a character out of Thea's few lines. But what is most remarkable about Babe's direction is that he makes good scenes out of his less-experienced, less-talented actors. He takes a company of professors which has just butchered a comic scene, and makes of them, with low noises, easy movements, and suggestive blocking a menacing mob, growling like wolves at Melchior. There is a group-masturbation scene performed powerfully by actors who were slaughtering lines only a moment before. It is a pity the professors' comic scene should have been lost, for it is the best work in a new and much more precise translation by Harvard graduate students Kenneth Tiger and Clayton Koelb.
The actors and their director prove that there is great power in this rarely performed work; indeed, they do more, for the number of well-played scenes adds up to a good production, and a reminder that Harvard drama is most successful at its most ambitious.