AUTS’ Spring Awakening Brings German Teen Angst to McGill

Photo courtesy of Arts Undergraduate Theatre Society

This week, the Arts Undergraduate Theatre Society (AUTS) began its run of Spring Awakening, the indie rock musical that originated on Broadway in 2006. The story centers on a group of 19th century German adolescents whose burgeoning sexual curiosity is resisted by a puritan society, especially parents and professors. The teenagers’ predicament is best encapsulated by this damning line: “How will we know what to do if our parents don’t tell us?”

The AUTS has put on a beautifully understated production; this musical is as relevant as ever, especially as our current discourse meditates on bodily autonomy and re-evaluating old interpretations of masculinity and femininity. And with the adolescent experience being universal, the concerns that plagued teenagers growing up in the late 1890s are the same as those of teenagers living in the 2010s. It’s a fantastic choice for the McGill, and any, audience.

…with the adolescent experience being universal, the concerns that plagued teenagers growing up in the late 1890s are the same as those of teenagers living in the 2010s.

The difficult subject matter is handled well by a cast clearly up to the challenge, led by first-year McGill students Leah DeBorba (Wendla Bergmann) and Natan Shaviv (Melchior Gabor), as well as by first-year Concordia student Eric Wakim (Moritz Stiefel). Wendla is a gentle but persistent young woman who yearns for her mother to be more open with her; Melchior is a brooding leading man, a teenager wise beyond his years whose forbidden extracurricular studies have made him an expert of human anatomy. His best friend is the neurotic Moritz, whose hopeless prudishness takes an increasing toll on his mental health.

In Spring Awakening, there is something deliciously attractive about radicalism. “He doesn’t believe in anything,” the girls say about Melchior, whose nihilism makes him the ultimate foil of a strict moral order. He refers to this as a “parentocracy,” blaming parents and educators for shielding their children from the realities of sex, and pressuring them into a preordained definition of success: do well in school, stay out of trouble, have a family someday.

Indeed, when we first meet Wendla, she sings about her mother giving her “no way to handle things”; she begs for more information about sex, but all that her mother can muster after a lot of spluttering is that when a man and a woman sleep together, “she must love him with all her heart.” All of this silly side-stepping is fodder for laughs at first, but it slowly spirals into a domino effect of terrible consequences.

In Spring Awakening, there is something deliciously attractive about radicalism.

In between all of that, Spring Awakening has many rousing numbers. The AUTS production in particular excelled at ensemble performances like “The B*tch of Living,” “Touch Me” and “Totally F*cked.” Everyone on stage lived up to the anthemic spirit of these songs, punctuating the instrumental accompaniment with foot stomps and some excellent choreography. The Moyse Hall stage is not particularly large but the cast made great use of the space, with the girls’ brightly coloured dresses livening up the set.

Though it’s a musical, the AUTS production uses silence just as effectively as it uses song. I was struck in particular by the lengthy pause that followed Martha’s (Devin Sunar) admission of a dark secret. The discomfort felt in the audience after so many moments of quiet was audible; we stewed for what felt like ages. Ultimately, this is part of what made the show so memorable. The actors were able to evoke strong emotion even in doing so little.

I loved the performances by Jake Cohen (Ernst) and Patrick Dale (Hanschen), who made their mark with great comedic timing and a really fun flirtation scene; Meera Raman was also lovely as Ilse, a friend of Wendla’s who runs away to join an artist’s colony. Though there are many adult characters in the play, they’re never played by more than two actors: one man and one woman. Lucas Amato (the men) and Julia Kennific (the women) did a truly excellent job distinguishing between all of their parts, making each one seem like an individual despite having only a few lines allotted to each.

The music and dialogue in Spring Awakening is laden with euphemisms, almost never directly referencing the sexual subject matter that permeates the rest of the show. Perhaps using abstract phrasing just sounds prettier than the alternative, and that’s why the lyrics are so heavily coded. But the double meanings have another purpose: to show that these kids are left in the dark by their parents and teachers, having no words to describe or express their new feelings. The AUTS production crystallizes this perfectly thanks to a great cast and crew.

The AUTS performs “Spring Awakening” from January 31st to February 2nd at 7:30pm in Moyse Hall.

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