His name was Bob. I was a freshman at the University of North Dakota, not quite 19, and I was caught up in all of the emotions and hormones and other assorted craziness of being a teenager, being on my own for the first time in the “big city” (when you come from a town of 450 people, Grand Forks can seem like a Metropolis on first viewing), and kinda sorta poking my toes out of the closet for the first time when I met him. Now that I have a lot more experience to compare it to, I can say that he wasn’t that great in bed (neither was I, I’m sure!) and he had a strange habit of leaving hickeys all over my neck like we were in junior high – not that I gave or received many hickeys back then, given my aforementioned closeted status in the previously noted small town. He was in his 30s and probably just saw me as fresh meat, and he always smelled a little bit like beer and stale cigarettes, though I never saw him smoke. My brain tends toward the dramatic, even moreso back then, and so I thought of us as having a passionate and tawdry affair. The truth is, we met one night while I was “aimlessly” driving around near the adult bookstore, a notorious cruising ground before the flood reworked the landscape (aimlessly indeed – even though I hadn’t even fully acknowledged my queerness to myself, a part of me definitely knew what I was doing!), and went back to his place at the Warehouse Apartments to have clumsy sex, which was then repeated 3 or 4 more times over the next two weeks or so, though we bypassed the cruising bit: he gave me his number.
I’m sure you’ve figured this out but this story is about how I lost my virginity, and I think it’s important for how I’m processing my experience at the Empire Theatre Company’s production of Spring Awakening, playing at the Empire Arts Center through Saturday. The story is ostensibly about adolescents coming of age in a small German town near the end of the 19th Century, and it becomes more accessible to me if I try to view it through the lens of that hormone-saturated college student making bad choices, listening to Sheryl Crow and Garbage. Where I am now, I find the story to be a bit precious in the first act sliding into full-blown-teen-angst-melodrama in the second, and the annoyance I feel while watching the plights of these German schoolchildren is a lot like my mild disdain for my younger self when I remember how I dopily mooned over some sad guy who had bought into gay culture’s obsession with youth and could only respond to it by fucking people half his age. But that’s exactly the thing about being that age and being faced with your budding sexuality and thoughts of the future: everything is painted in extremes; it’s impossible for most to imagine that there will ever be a time where you will be able to look at the experience in front of you and realize it’s part of the larger fabric of your life. Every moment of passion is an explosive inferno; every challenge is the highest peak or a bottomless chasm. Recalling those feelings from my own life helps me bridge the space between the narrative of Spring Awakening and my more weathered and cynical perspective. It doesn’t get me there completely, but it definitely helps.
The story centers on the ill-fated love of Wendla (Leah Biberdorf) and Melchior (Walter Criswell), as well as the perspectives and personal trials of their friends: Janie Sanner (Martha), Hannah Diers (Thea), Therese Kulas (Anna), and Ivy McGurran (Ilse), assisted by Jackie O’Neil and Rachel Perry in ensemble roles, make up the rest of the female student population while most of the boys play double duty – Ben Breidenback (Moritz), Tyler Folkedahl (Hanschen and Rupert), Seth Cline (Ernst and Reinhold), Jack Jeno (Georg and Dieter), Ryan Jones (Otto and Ulbrecht) and Ruben Flores (Ensemble). All of the adult roles are handled expertly by Anna Pieri and Robert Howard, who managed to create different personas for the various teachers and parents who appear throughout the show.
And the show certainly doesn’t make it easy for them: as one might expect from a musical presented from the perspective of a group of teenagers who feel constrained by their society (and any adults, their parents especially, standing in as the representatives of that society), adults are generally not to be trusted. The teachers from the boys’ school lurk over their charges from a platform in the center of the rather sparse, suggestive set like wardens in a prison, plotting against young Moritz. Of the parents who appear, the fathers are cruel, emotionally if not physically and sexually abusive, while the mothers harm their children is more subtle ways: Wendla’s sad trajectory is shown to be orchestrated almost completely by her mother, first by withholding truthful information about “where babies come from” and later by arranging for a secret abortion without her daughter’s knowledge or consent. Wendla’s fate and her mother’s blame are foreshadowed in the opening number:
Mama who bore me
Mama who gave me
No way to handle things
Who made me so sad
Mama, the weeping
Mama, the angels
No sleep in Heaven
Melchior’s mother is smiling and affectionate to her son and his friend Moritz, refusing to believe that anything could be stirring beneath the surface. When Moritz writes her a note asking for money after being expelled, she writes back a letter gushing with encouragement and “positive positioning,” as if she were writing a guidebook for modern corporate interactions. She briefly stands up to her husband, defending the racy essay Melchior wrote for Moritz in hopes of helping him deal with his sexual cravings as truthful information, though she is easily dissuaded when her husband reveals a love note Melchior wrote to Wendla, wanting to meet again. Though she could accept his understanding of sex and sexuality, the thought that this knowledge might be coupled with passionate action convinces her that he is some sort of degenerate in need of reform.
Though the story can feel a bit angst-ridden, the performances by the cast are all stellar. Biberdorf’s crystal clear voice captures Wendla’s naivety perfectly and melds nicely with Criswell’s huskier vocalizations. The cast infuse their songs with longing and frustration and confusion, all of the mixed up turbulent emotions of late adolescence. McGurran and Sanner also give a commanding performance of “The Dark I know Well,” a song about abuse that features a provocative dance by O’Neil and several male cast members. I’ve heard the show billed as a punk rock musical, and there are certainly some hints of punk sensibility, but generally the music is more in the vein of heavily orchestrated rock/pop (The Sex Pistols aren’t known for their killer viola work); the punk influences come from the softer edge, a la Siouxsie and the Banshees or the Smiths. The songs are beautiful and complex, though lyrically they follow in the footsteps of rock musical predecessor RENT and toe the line of self-indulgence. A personal favorite was “My Junk,” a song that playfully acknowledges the obsessive nature of young love. David Henrickson did a fantastic job as music director, leading a band that includes Miles Uhrich on guitar, Spencer Black on bass, Alex Huther playing drums, cello by Joseph Peterson, Lauren Craig playing viola, John Gangelhoff on violin, and his won work on keyboard. The orchestration was full and rich and filled the space nicely without overpowering the actors. Choreography by Casey Paradies was fairly understated with a few explosive moments and worked well with the music.
In terms of the technical aspects, I felt generally lukewarm. The set was minimalist with a large wooden structure that represents at different times a schoolhouse and a barn with a hayloft; as I mentioned there is a platform above center stage with a concealed staircase, and two open wooden pillars on either side of the stage. The set is effective enough and eases the transitions from scene to scene, but the overall shape and design feels a little like a rehash of the set from Spitfire Grill (if you’d like to read the review of that show as well as a fiery response from the show’s composer in the comments, you can do that HERE). The lighting is minimal, relying on spotlights to highlight the actors, and bare bulbs hanging from black cords simulate starlight effectively, and look especially beautiful with the smoke effects in the first act. The fog machine is noticeably absent from the second half; it’s possible that this represents a figurative clearing of the fog for Wendla regarding sexuality after her hayloft tryst with Melchior, but more technical changes, in lighting or set, would have made this metaphor more readable, if it is indeed intentional. The costumes work handily enough, though a bit uneven: while the girls’ costumes feel more accurate to the period, the boys’ costumes feel more stylized – anachronistic hairstyles, pops of saturated color, and other small details set them apart from their female counterparts.
After all of this, some of you are probably wondering about the title of this article. There was a moment in the first act that held a great deal of queer potential: Wendla has recently learned that her friend Martha regularly suffers beatings from her father (in “The Dark We Know Well” the audience learns that the abuse goes even deeper than what Martha admits to her friends). Wendla is unable to understand, having been protected from all extremes of emotion and experience by her mother, and asks Melchior to hit her with a switch. At first he is appalled at the suggestion, but before long he slips into the role of a confident dom, growling “I’ll teach you to say please” before striking her bare legs. The moment is unexpected, a little sexy and a little disturbing at the same time, like the scene in Monster’s Ball where Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton have sex after the death of her son. Even before Wendla and Melchior have sex, they have this interaction, exploring the complex interconnectedness of sex and power and trust. The moment is shattered when Melchior goes too far, lashing out at Wendla and frightening her. What people often misunderstand about S&M is that it isn’t about pain for pain’s sake, but rather a complex negotiation of trust and surrender; like Wendla and Melchior’s scene, it is easy for things to go wrong if boundaries are not communicated and respected, and for these two, still caught up in their inexperience, the moment gets away from them and provides a deeper resonance for their coupling in the hayloft a short time later.
There are still three opportunities left for you to catch this racey little gem and I highly recommend it, though it’s probably best that you prep yourself for a healthy dose of angst – check your “all growed up” cynicism at the door. Director Chris Berg and cast have put together a tight little show that will entertain and perhaps shock you, filled with generous amounts of both lightness and dark. And if you feel any bondage-y stirrings once the switch hits Wendla’s legs, well, Romantix is only two blocks away. I’m sure they’ve got a lovely ball gag in your size.
(cast photo by Kylie Herland Photography)
Tags: Abby Schoenborn, Adolescence, Anna Pieri, Ben Breidenbach, Billy Bob Thornton, Chris Berg, David Henrickson, Empire Arts Center, Empire Theater, Empire Theatre, Empire Theatre Company, Halle Berry, Hannah Diers, Ivy McGurran, Jack Jeno, Jackie O'Neil, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Janie Sanner, Leah Biberdorf, Losing Your Virginity, Mama Who Bore Me, Miss Jaye, Monster's Ball, My Junk, Queerness, Rachel Perry, Robert Howard, Ruben Flores, Ryan Jones, Seth Cline, sexuality, Song of Purple Summer, Spring Awakening, The Bitch of Living, The Dark I Know Well, Therese Kulas, Tyler Folkedahl, Virgin, Virginity, Walter Criswell, World of Champagne