SPRING'S AWAKENINGBy Frank Wedekind
Outcry Theatre Company
Director: Becca Johnson-Spinos
Stage Manager: Elizabeth Cantrell
Assistant Stage Manager: Lindsey Brandow
Original Music: Logan Beutel
Set Designer: Bradley Gray
Costume Designer: Gabrielle Grafrath
Lighting Designer: Hannah Winkler
Sound Designer: Jason Johnson-Spinos
Props Designers: Becca Johnson-Spinos and Elizabeth Cantrell
Melchior: Jake Blakeman
Wendla Bergmann: Mira Agustin
Moritz Stiefel: Bryce Lederer
Ilse: Emory Otto
Hänschen Rilow/Reinhold: Andy Stratton
Ernst/Locksmith: Ryder Houston
Georg/Stickytongue/Dietholm/Dead Body/: Dylan Weand
Otto/ Catchemquick/ Gaston: Harrison Polen
Robert/ Flykiller/Helmuth: Logan Beutel
Lämmermeier/Probst/Thickstick/Ruprecht: Caleb Ross
Martha/Ina Muller: Madison Armstrong
Thea: Myah Durham
Mrs. Berhmann/Bonebreaker: Jenna Caire
Rektor Sunstroke/Dr. Fizzpowder: Cary Bazan
Mrs. Gabor/Calflove/Friend Goatmilker: Autumn McNamara
Mr. Gabor/Pastor Skinnytum: Matthew Rigdon
A Man in A Mask/Renitier Stiefel/Starveling/Dr. Procrustes: Jason Johnson-Spinos
Reviewed Performance: 7/7/2018
Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Critic/Editor/Founder for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Friday evening (July 6th) was my first experience to see the work and talent provided by Outcry Theatre. They were nominated for the first time last season at THE COLUMN Awards for Best Musical for its production of Bat Boy. Thus, I wanted to see what else they had to offer, and that was Frank Wedkind’s Spring Awakening (translated by Eric Bentley).
Wedkind’s (a German) first play contained such themes as puberty, sexuality, rape, child abuse, homosexuality, suicide, abortion–so needless to say his play was often censored or banned. In 2006 his three act play often called “a tragedy in childhood” was metamorphosed into a musical for Broadway (which I saw with the original cast), where it did become a monster hit winning eight Tony awards including Best Musical.
The design elements for Outcry’s production matched well within the emotion created by the company. Bradley Gray’s scenic design was a concoction of wood, a platform, and hanging above window frames. On far upstage left was planted a large panel like tree while on the opposite end was a platform that had pieces of wood planks sticking out. The floor was covered in strips of wood, except downstage left where there was a patch of green grass. The upstage walls were draped in splattered fabric, all in hues of browns. The complete set (except for the grass) were in muted browns and greys. Which makes sense in the confined lives these kids habited in. The lighting designed by Hannah Winkler was simplistic but worked well within the piece.
Gabrielle Grafrath’s costumes wonderfully fit the period and each piece fitted the cast nicely. What really stood out was how much time she took on making sure the school boy’s uniforms looked the same down to every detail, from the style of the shirt, the tie, even the shoelaces and style of shoe. The studio theatre is an intimate space and those tiny details would have stood out if even one did not match. So Ms. Grafrath did a fantastic job as a costume designer to pay attention to those kinds of details.
Becca Johnson-Spinos direction overall was exceptional. It was genuinely impressive to observe how she was able to bring out from this cast of youthful performers these raw, truthful performances. That is not easy for ANY director. But she and her company achieved this remarkable task. However, there were some bumps on its opening night that need to be smoothed out. The overall production needs work on its pace (it clocked in at three hours and fifteen minutes). There were just way too many dramatic pauses (especially during the first Act). Several of the leads simply needed to push through their exposition. Another issue was you couldn’t tell in a couple of the scenes if the emotional focus was supposed to be on the comedy or drama. Was it was meant to be played for laughs or not. For example, the scene with Melchior and his teachers. He is on the verge of a mental and emotional breakdown, but the teachers are doing way over the top comedic hysterics all around him. The audience was clearly enjoying the comedy, but the focus really should have been on Melchior. It was a perplexing scene. Finally, I don’t know if the ghoulish makeup for Moritz works. I understand the conception, but it comes out more Heath Ledger Joker than headless ghost.
Ms. Johnson-Spinos staging/choreography was spectacular. It was so visually exciting, unique, and original. The use of this staging for the transitions was intoxicating and worked so beautifully for many of the scenes. The entire talented cast executed these choregraphed movements smoothly and effortlessly all evening long. This explained the use of the wooden floor. Also, when they pounded their hands on their chest to echo the sound a heart, or gasped for air, it was another great moment. This is not easy material by any means, so to have a cast of teens to go all in with no barriers, I greatly applaud this director. The company showed no hint of uncomfortableness when it came to some of those emotional or graphic scenes, they went all in, committed to the emotion and the physicality of that emotion-that was highly impressive. Major kudos to both the director and the actors in trusting each other.
All three principals deliver outstanding performances: Jake Blakerman (Melchior), Mira Agustin (Wendla), and Bryce Lederer (Moritz). These three actors must carry this extremely heavy drama on their shoulders, and they are quite impressive in what they achieve in doing that. Ms. Agustin is a beautiful actress who displayed Wendla’s innocence from the moment the lights went up on her. She knew where her arc was and zeroed in on it emotionally. Her stage presence was captivating. Jake Blakerman gave a powerhouse performance as the boy who knows about sex but goes down the dark wrong paths. Blakerman’s dynamic stage presence aides him in his bold characterization. His subtext does need to be clearer, which I’m sure will come through after a few more performances under his belt. Finally, Blakerman has riveting chemistry with Ms. Agustin. In fact, their chemistry in the first act is so devastating raw, loving, yet horrifying that it leaves you so uncomfortable. Which is exactly how both the subtext and author wanted us to be! That a testament to the talents of Mr. Blakerman and Ms. Agustin.
Bryce Lederer is sensational as Moritz without a doubt, however he almost fell into the trap that several actors have fallen into with this role. Having seen the musical version of Spring Awakening several times now (the original Broadway version, two national tours, and several local productions)- only two actors (the original John Gallagher Jr. and the Natl tour’s Blake Bashoff) did not fall into the trap. And that is this- which is to peak way too soon in the role of Moritz. Actors in this role get so intense and start off on a level “9” from the get go, so that you have nowhere to go by the end of the evening when you get to “that Act II” scene. Lederer got so close there on opening night, but as the evening went on, he did pull back and thankfully was able to settle into his character and allow his subtext to re-build. Because he did finally pull back, his Act II acting craft work was peerless and moving.
The scene stealing performances belong to Andy Stratton as Hänschen and Ryder Houston as Ernst. To play these two roles and not shy away from the characters and the subtext is a challenge for any actor. They stayed in character all evening long. Stratton had a direct, masculine pose that took command each time he arrived on stage, while Houston looked timid, shy, and innocent. Whenever they were near each other on stage, they glanced at each other, the reactions and body language said it all. Stratton’s monologue was quite frankly the best acting piece of the entire night. It showed all the narcissistic sides of Hänschen. Later on, the scene with Stratton and Houston involving grapes was done without a hint of uncomfortableness between either actor, it was honest and touching. It should be noted that both scenes earned loud applause from the opening night audience when the scenes went to blackout.
Other stand performances include Logan Beutel as Robert Beutel (Who deserves resounding applause for composing and playing the gorgeous original music on his guitar); Jenna Caire as Mrs. Bergmann, Jason-Johnson-Spinos as A Man in a Mask; Autumn McNamara as Mrs. Gabor, Harrison Polen as Otto, and Caleb Ross as Lämmermeier.
There are theaters that have youth or teen summer camps or run teen/youth theaters in general, they tend to do only family friendly titles that you can take from the little ones all the way to grandma to see. And there is problem in that. But if you have a teen or college age thespian that has the talent, the it factor, who can tackle outside the box, understands what subtext is, is not afraid to explore beyond their talents- then you might need to call Outcry Theatre. This theatre company was not what I expected by any means whatsoever. Their current production of Spring Awakening would hold up to some of the adult theater companies around town right now-they are that good….If not better!
Playing through July 15, 2018
1915 North Central Expressway
Plano, TX 75075