With the success of the musical version of “Spring Awakening” in New York, interest in the long-censored original drama by 19th century playwright Frank Wedekind has been reawakened — or perhaps just awakened. The impressive Philadelphia debut from relocated New Orleans company EgoPo gives us Wedekind straight up (if you can call highly stylized German expressionism straight up). Combining masks with precision physical movement, the production is always interesting to look at if sometimes tedious to listen to — a little heavy-handed satire goes a long way. But the 1891 modernist classic has been well served.
The stage floor is gorgeously carpeted with flowers — thick, lush and colorful — with masses more coming through the windows. “Spring Awakening” is about the springtime of life, and it’s clear that being a teenager a century ago was no easier than being a teenager nowadays. By the second act, the flowers have disappeared, the dirt floor and grim lighting suggesting the dark direction of events.
The 14-year-olds may declaim in stiff language and wear old-fashioned clothes, but their youthful angst, sexual discovery and parental pressure are entirely recognizable. Kept from the public eye due to its frank treatment of teen pregnancy, abortion, homosexuality, masturbation, sadomasochism and suicide, “Spring Awakening” did not receive its first uncensored production until 1974.
The play’s point of view is entirely the adolescents’ — their parents and teachers all wear masks (by Naomi Littell) suggesting various degrees of grotesque aging, with iron-clad hair and hideously wrinkled green and purple faces. Consistent with most teenagers’ perspective, adults are generally awful — repressive, cruel, prudish and pompous.
This is in contrast to the fresh-faced, smooth, strong-limbed ensemble of actors playing girls and boys; everyone performs barefoot, creating visceral as well as visual power under Lane Savadove’s inventive direction.
Especially good are Doug Greene as Moritz, the most troubled of the boys; Robert DaPone as Melchior, his intellectually rebellious friend; and Megan McDermott as Wendla, a romantic girl kept in disastrous ignorance by her mother. Leah Walton as Frau Gabor delivers a great scene as she speaks aloud her letter to Moritz as his “maternal friend,” refusing him help while corseting herself as she dresses.
The final scene in the graveyard is both beautiful and chilling, reprising the haunting motif from Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas”: “When I am laid in earth, may my wrongs create no trouble in my breast. Remember me, remember me but forget my fate.” But the scene in which the Masked Man (a character dropped from the Duncan Sheik/Steven Sater musical) lures Melchior back to life is disappointingly choreographed, muddling the show’s final point.
Douglas Langworthy’s new translation departs from the conventional only in its rare use of contemporary slang, and the production would benefit from trimming the script from its nearly three hours.
EgoPo introduces itself to Philadelphia with this show; two years ago, while performing in the Philadelphia Fringe, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the company’s home base, destroying its new theater building as well as the homes of its members. The troupe is a welcome addition to the city’s theater scene.