Regardless of one's familiarity with the 2006 Tony Award-winning musical Spring Awakening--or, should I boldly declare, regardless of one's familiarity with the musical theater, period--Deaf West Theatre's production currently playing at the Wallis Annenberg Performing Arts Center in Beverly Hills is one of the most unique experiences one can have in a live stage performance venue. What director Michael Arden and his talented troupe of actors have created goes far beyond any innate (for lack of a better term) novelty for a hearing audience to watch a show prominently featuring deaf talent and sign language and into the realm of art that is not only groundbreaking, but redefines one's very notions and perceptions of artistic expression.
While almost ten years have passed since the beginning of its multiple Tony Award-winning original Broadway run, composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist/librettist Steven Sater's 2006 musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind's original 1891 play is still startling, and that's only partly due to the brazen frankness of its tale of emergent teen sexuality in repressive 19th Century Germany. What's more shocking than how it covers the gamut of raging, pubescent hormones, from hetero- and homosexual encounters and fantasies to masturbation and sadomasochism is how it does so without resorting to graphic exploitation. Cheap titillation and provocation are not the focus, and any such of the (sometimes literally) brutal honesty with which it covers the adolescent awakening of its young protagonists' individual, more modern, authority-challenging sensibilities and identities is as fully-forming human beings, not only their sexual ones.
But it is that latter aspect that makes the material such an unexpected but wholly inspired choice for a deaf theater company to tackle. Those with any disability are too often perceived as being somehow, for lack of a better word, "incomplete," as if they don't have the very same feelings, instincts, and urges as anyone else--a notion even more patently absurd when then applied to teens with disabilities. Thus, as the adults of the piece, from authorities at school to parents at home, try to not only keep the youths in line but also their very natural, human instincts, another layer of meaning and social commentary is lent to an already thought-provoking and all-around provocative piece. This is thus not simply a tale of the old guard trying to maintain the conservative, religious decorum of tradition in the face of barely containable youthful rebellion and challenge to the status quo, but also of authority condescending to and belittling those with disabilities, paying no mind to their voices, both literal and figurative.
Part of the sheer brilliance of Arden's direction is that though two of the three main characters, sheltered but curious Wendla and the shy, tormented Moritz, are primarily played by deaf actors (Sandra Mae Frank and Daniel N. Durant, respectively), there is no explicit, concrete reference to either character being hearing impaired. Although it certainly can be validly read that they are, the line is creatively fudged by Arden's novel double casting approach, where Katie Boeck and Alex Boniello literally give voice, in both song and speech, to both characters. This, as well as the simultaneous signing of the dialogue and lyrics done by all of the actors, principal and ensemble alike, can then also be simply taken as a necessary, not to be taken literally, theatrical device to make the piece inclusive to all audiences. A hearing actor, Austin McKenzie, plays the third protagonist, revolutionary thinker Melchior, and his ability to simultaneously speak, sing, and sign can be taken as either a figurative expression of his magnetic confidence and charisma or being a bit of an aspirational figure that inspires the oppressed deaf characters to find and follow their own voices. Either perspective is perfectly valid and strongly supported by all that can be seen and heard in the production, but when viewed from both at the same time, an already powerful piece becomes all the more so.
This constant blurring of lines and the resulting creation of multiple yet seamlessly delivered dimensions of expression and layers of meaning informs Arden's entire directorial concept. At certain moments certain spoken or sung lines aren't signed but appear as text projected onto various objects or surfaces in scenic and costume designer Dane Laffrey's set, and the use of multimedia is neither excessive nor forced, proving not only to have a practical purpose but one that also augments the material; case in point, when the tactic is first introduced during a classroom scene, where it drives home the fundamental disconnect in communication between the tyrannical, non-signing teacher and not only the deaf students/actors but the young people in general. Arden makes full, creative use of Laffrey's stage set and the entire proscenium space, with actors and even band members on multiple levels and appropriately scene- and/or mood-setting projections, but he makes the piece move from being widely inclusive to downright immersive with his inspired and inventive use of the entire venue space. At various points actors enter from the house aisles in ways that never feel gimmicky but serve the given scene, and Arden even makes completely practical but imaginatively narrative-supportive use of literally built-in features such as the orchestra pit.
Most exhilarating of all, and all the more stunning and electrifying given the deaf-inclusive angle to the entire production, are the musical numbers. However energetically performed the catchy tunes were in Michael Mayer's original Broadway production, the numbers were always blunted by his distracting (and, frankly, rather cheesy and tiresome) gimmick of having the cast members suddenly pull out hand microphones from various places, or even from their person, whenever launching into song. Arden retains Mayer's generalized "rock concert of the mind" conceit but refines it into something more focused and organic, working as a natural extension to the split-casting of Wendla and Moritz. Boeck and Boniello also lend their formidable guitar skills in addition to their voices to Frank and Durant's vividly expressive silent performances, and in tandem each pair creates an appropriate and distinctive voice for their shared characters. Boeck's pretty croon and acoustic strumming and Frank's beautifully delicate yet formidable portrayal befits Wendla's innocent but ever-precocious curiosity; on the flip side, Boniello's hard-rocking wail in voice and electric instrument is the embodiment of the angst and rage one sees and feels boiling under Durant's tense, tightly-wound yet consistently relatable presence as Moritz. But what takes this production to such a transcendent level is uniquely Deaf West and Arden's. With American Sign Language being such a fundamental component to making all of Deaf West's productions inclusive to the hearing-impaired audience, here Arden and choreographer Spencer Liff brilliantly spin that functional convention to further make the piece inclusive to every audience. How the signing melds so seamlessly and creatively with the music and dance during the songs to such unique, utterly indescribable, and remarkably powerful effect makes the overused term "body language" come literally, thrillingly to life.
But there would be no true "life," per se, to the piece if there were no emotional investment to the characters, and all of the actors deliver piercing, powerful performances, both deaf and hearing alike. Given the deaf-inclusive nature of the staging, it's all too easy to focus on the impressive work of the former, but the latter cast members are every bit as raw and real. From newcomers (such as Austin McKenzie, a stage superstar-in-the-making as the third lead of the piece, Melchior Gabor, the charismatic free-thinker whose restless, rebellious spirit challenges not only the adult authorities but the inhibitions of his fellow students, not least of whom Wendla and Moritz) to Broadway veterans (such as a beautifully haunting Krysta Rodriguez as Ilse, a down-on-her-luck former student), they perhaps give even more than their deaf counterparts, both signing and singing seamlessly with ease equal to their commitment to their characters and the entire experience.
And that's what Arden and Deaf West's Spring Awakening is--a powerful piece of drama whose astounding creativity and amplified emotional impact bursts far beyond the proscenium and even the performance itself, making for a work of art whose resonance will last for far long after the final curtain call.
Deaf West Theatre's production of Spring Awakening is now playing at the Bram Goldsmith Theatre at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills through Sunday, June 7.
(Special thanks to DC Publicity and Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts )