IT'S POSSIBLE that no dramatist of similar stature could match the sexual activity of Frank Wedekind; it was characteristic of him that he would bring this personal obsession to the stage. "His greatest work," Brecht eulogized, "was his own personality." Wedekind was the first playwright of the polymorphous perverse, and his sexual emphasis and stylistic departures from photographic naturalism opened the door for Brecht, as well as all of the modern drama that followed. Somewhat simian in appearance, Wedekind was the Missing Link in German drama between the mad prodigy Georg Buchner and the Twentieth Century, the first one to come out of the trees.
As Brecht might be said to be the cynosure for the contemporary theatre, so is Wedekind, as Brecht's mentor, a star ascendant in the night sky. This is Wedekind year at the Loeb; the American Rep is scheduled to perform Lulu early next year, and the Harvard-Radcliffe Drama Club started its season last week with an auspicious production of Spring's Awakening, Wedekind's first work.
Spring's Awakening, which Wedekind subtitled "A Tragedy of Childhood," concerns the sexual awakening of adolescence, "the first stirrings of manhood," the unleashing of the dogs of sex. The protagonists--Melchior, Moritz, Wendla, and Ilse--feel these stirrings, and are confused by them, and find no direction from a daft and hypocritical matriarchy. Left to fend for themselves in the erotic floodtide, some swim, others drown. This, for Wedekind, is the central point; the sexual impulse is merely a force, and as a force has no moral content; it should be recognized as such, and neither hidden nor judged; it is as likely to produce Death as Life--Eros and Thanatos, warp and woof of the same cloth.
Director David Prum has brought Spring's Awakening into the American present, to fine effect. Between scenes we hear Ian Dury or the Rolling Stones, and on the screen at the back of the stage we see ads for Jordache jeans, or a picture of the Hollywood Bowl, or the murder scene from Psycho. The screen is also used for video projection--Prum has a television camera trained on one or more of the actors much of the time, and pretty soon you can see why those tribesmen you hear about hate to have their photographs taken, for fear that it will extrude their souls. For whatever reason, there are few things as eerie as watching someone acting in front of you and appearing simultaneously above you, blue and ten times as large.
This approach complements Prum's revision of Wedekind's theme; in his hands, the play is not only a tragedy of growing up, but a tragedy of growing up too fast in the American city. All of the natural traumas of puberty and the dawning of self-consciousness are accelerated by our popular culture, by naked bodies in tight jeans, and cinematic violence, and television, television, television, impinging on us at all times of the day. Prum has made of Spring's Awakening an indictment of what might be called the California culture, in which grotesqueries are made of both the young, who are made to feel the weight of the world before they feel a shaving razor, and of the mature, who act like idiots, with no sense that they should act any other way.
THE REAL STAR of the show is the set, created by Derek McLane, Mammoth flowers open with a resounding pop, like umbrellas--not flowers so much as an urban person's idea of a flower, the sort of thing you might find decorating the Citicorp lobby, or around Lincoln Center's glass and steel and concrete. The center of the stage is a huge black reflecting pool, a tar pit to trap Narcissus; around it is a path of Harvard Square brick, and around that a "lawn" of torn Hefty bags. Everything is unhealthy and artificial, beautiful in its way, but beautiful for adults only. Welcome to the East Side.
By exalting the set, I don't intend to demean the actors, for most of them are at least good enough, and several are outstanding. In the role of Melchior, James Bundy gives a thoughtful and convincing portrait of age-in-youth. Daphne de Marneffe is chillingly effective as Mrs. Bergmann, particularly on the video screen--then she is a ten-foot-tall female gargoyle, and it is clear that all hope for these children is lost. De Marneffe's triumph, though, comes later, when she plays the 14-year-old nymphet Ilse. Here she is as enormously seductive as only a pubescent art-groupie in the Village can be that enrapturing combination of loose-knit young limbs and eyes that reach down into your darkest urges. With a look and a walk she evokes the thematic center of Wedekind's play: the awesome power of dawning libido. And Courtney Vance is universally excellent in all four of his roles, but particularly in the end, as the Man in a Mask, the Great Father who has come to save Melchior and his dismal world.
The greatest acting problems come with the most problematic roles, as one might expect. Hannah Cox never seems to get a handle on Wendla, the Ivory Snow girl who wants to be thrashed to orgasm. She gives no indications of the dark psychoses in Wendla, the psychological wreckage that would be caused by a mother like de Marneffe; all we get is the surface, and sometimes, mumbling, as if Cox knows there is something more to Wendla, but hasn't reached it yet. Similarly, Barry Mann never penetrates the depths that must be there if Moritz's suicide is to have any significance. Mostly, he plays Moritz as a sort of addled simpleton, a Peanuts character, where Wedekind's whole point seems to be that children are not Peanuts characters at all.
ON ALL LEVELS, the production loses steam after intermission. To be sure, this is in part Wedekind's fault; Spring's Awakening starts to flail away in the end, as if the author is in a hurry to get to his striking climax. Still, this only calls for a greater focus on the director's part. Instead, Prum flails even more than Wedekind. Scenes take on the flavor of sketches from Saturday Night Live; the light, controlled parody that distinguished the first half lumbers now in its obviousness. Worse, it gets turned back on the play and the production itself, always a dangerous enterprise.
I am thinking particularly of the appearance on the screen of a time warp, a la The Final Countdown, and the playing, at the same time, of the theme from 2001, immediately preceding the reappearance of the dead Moritz. This is not playful--it is stupid and self-defeating. There are worse problems, though, such as the indiscriminate use of the video in the second half, which gives the production an uninteresting, gimmicky feel. As a result of all this, the pace slows to a crawl, and the production becomes like a stubborn fish on the end of your line, beating its brains out to a slow throbbing rhythm against the gunwales of your ship.
Yet, if there are faults to this production of Spring's Awakening, they are the faults you might expect from non-professionals, and nothing is ever so bad if you anticipate it. More than this, these players succeed in ways that no professional company really could: with the excitement of reckless and risky devices, the heady pleasure of watching an actor hit his stride for the first time--genuine wonders of artistic innocence.