Nineteenth-century 'Spring Awakening' has relevance today

Imagine Frank Wedekind writing "Spring Awakening" in 1891 Germany. Count Otto von Bismarck, for Pete's sake, has just stepped down. Freud's "Interpretation of Dreams" is years in the future. And here's Wedekind obsessing on teenage sexuality.

"Spring Awakening," a tragicomedy of teenage sex, goes boldly where no 19th century Teutonic dramatist had trod before: masturbation, the mechanics of procreation, abortion, homoeroticism and possible rape.

The play wasn't produced in Germany until 1906, and it was heavily censored. Times being what they are now, the rock musical version on Broadway just won a roomful of Tony Awards.

But as a reading Friday morning at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Angus Bowmer Theatre demonstrated, the original, nonmusical version, in a new translation by Douglas Langworthy, can still hold an audience, at least if frequent laughter is a sign.

Directed by Larissa Paige Kokernot, the play was read by 13 actors. The predominantly comic first act had the audience roaring with sympathetic recognition at characters awakening to the wonder of their sexuality with confusion, ignorance, shame, trauma and all-consuming curiosity.

But, like "Romeo and Juliet," another play driven by a rush of adolescent hormones, "Spring Awakening" ultimately abandons comedy for tragedy as it follows the fortunes of a trio of teens. Young Moritz (Tasso Feldman), a poor student and a neurotic character before the concept was invented, kills himself. Fourteen-year-old Wendla (Nell Geisslinger), who has a painfully hilarious where-do-babies-come-from scene early on with her mother (Shona Tucker), is later dispatched by a botched abortion. And the forthright Melchior (John Tufts), down on his luck, is poised for a dark fate of his own when a mysterious Masked Man seems to lead him to an unspecified alternative.

And what has consigned these youngsters to their fates? Gentle reader, the truth is cruel: A puritanical society that produces parents too embarrassed to talk frankly with their kids about sex. "Spring Awakening" is a warning drama, a sort of "Reefer Madness" in reverse. A warning not so much about something as the absence of something. Yes, "Spring Awakening" is a 19th-century screed against ignorance. It's a pitch for sex education.

In Wedekind's time it was visionary and undoubtedly brave. Whether it has relevance in a world of mandatory sex education, rap videos and television perfume commercials I leave to others to answer.

Two things should be made clear. One, the play is about more than raging hormones. The characters have entered that period of temporary insanity known as adolescence and are caught up in both the battle of the sexes and the battle of generations. They seek a path in life. Two, there is no cheap sniggering around the sexual content, none of the salacious come-on of the hot drama or comedy of the moment on you'll see on network television every night of the week.

Like Romeo and Juliet and their friends, Wedekind's young people live in the brave, new world of a present moment in which everything is so strangely charged with significance that obliterates past and future. And like Shakespeare's youngsters they are betrayed by their elders, who enforce a system that makes wonder, the root of knowledge, dirty and seedy.

Readings at the OSF are watched avidly because those plays have way of turning up a couple years later in full productions. Although Wedekind evokes the charged world of adolescence with charming power, "Spring Awakening" is essentially a one-trick pony, and it's a pony that's pretty much preaching to the choir.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail

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