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Repress the Child

Victorian mores turns natural urges into teen angst

Melanie Glickman and Josh Kemper feel the love.

By John Barry | Posted 3/4/2009

Spring Awakening

By Frank Wedekind, translated by Jonathan Franzen

Through March 14 at Mobtown Theatre

Spring Awakening at Mobtown Theatre is directed by Matt Bowerman, but at the opening performance many memories were traded of Terry Long, who passed away in December. Credited in the playbill for "conceptual vision," he sat on Mobtown's Board of Directors and, over several decades, has been a major force in Baltimore's theater community.

This original version of Frank Wedekind's century-old coming-of-age drama, translated by novelist Jonathan Franzen, is an alternative to the 2006 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical of the same name. The rock musical itself had jazzed up the somewhat starkly hued original by turning the primary characters--tortured adolescents--into mini rock-stars. When Franzen had issues with what he called the "maiming" of the original play by Broadway, he dusted off a translation that he had completed in 1988 for a Swarthmore College production. Long and Mobtown use that translation to get back to the darker spirit of the original.

The central figure is Melchior Gabor (Josh Kemper, who starred in a remarkably similar role in Bare: The Musical, another play about sexual confusion in high school). Melchior is a sexually inquisitive teenager, and one of the few teens in this play who knows about the birds and the bees. Wendla Bergman (Melanie Glickman) is a little ignorant on that score, although Melchior has sex with her--or acts out her rape fantasy, or rapes her, depending on how you look at it. The fact that the play leaves that open to interpretation is probably why Wedekind's original play took 15 years to get staged and why it has been a hot topic since then.

Melchior also engages in a relationship with Moritz (Chris Magorian), who isn't all that sharp in school and doesn't know that much about sex. Melchior gives Moritz a written version explaining the mysteries. Moritz promptly flunks out of school and commits suicide. While Victorian repression is basically responsible for his death, his straight-laced principle pins the blame squarely on Melchior.

On one level, this Spring is a buddy movie, in the Y Tu Mama Tambien? vein, rife with masturbation and bottled-up libidinal energies that, once released, shift gears easily between hetero- and homoerotic. But Wedekind digs deep into the dark side of the Victorian era: There's child abuse, abortion, suicide, and even metaphysical philosophy, and Franzen's translation is certainly faithful to the tortuous Germanic approach to dealing with existence.

This production has plenty of rough edges. These are tough roles for teenagers to take on, and Franzen's densely worded fidelity to the original asks a great deal from young actors. The upside is that this production opens up the Mobtown stage to a new generation of promising teenage actors, many of them from UMBC, the Baltimore School for the Arts, and the Carver Center for Arts and Technology.

Melanie Glickman, a Carver senior, offers a remarkably thoughtful and subtle interpretation of Wendla, a difficult role. Josh Kemper more than holds his own as Melchior, and does it with the same fluid grace that he showed in Bare. As the wayward, homeless Ilse--a somewhat naughty sexual tramp who serves as a counterpart to the naive Wendla--Megan Rippey adds a seductive and dangerous element to the cast.

In addition to Long, Brian Erickson is credited for this production's conceptual vision. He's the person behind the simple, but evocative set design, in which somewhat stilted, scattered panels are painted over with images from children's books and interlaced with figures and lettering that place this play in a dream world. As the lighting shifts, the panels gain personality, morphing from papyrus to gravestones. It's a fascinating transformation, and a commentary on repression, either in the Victorian age or this one.

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