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Up close but impersonal at Griffin Theatre

Some things work in this black box version of Spring Awakening, some don't

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Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik had an excellent idea when they decided to turn Frank Wedekind's classic play, Spring Awakening, into a musical. But that was only the prelude to their really big, brilliant—and, as it turns out, extremely successful—idea: contemporizing the 100-year-old German source material by punking it up. Even though they're subjects of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Sater and Sheik's teen characters scream their desperation into handheld mikes while doing itchy moves to a rock score. The look is Eraserhead meets Little Lord Fauntleroy.

In the same spirit, a few dozen audience members were permitted to watch the action from bleachers placed onstage when the show ran on Broadway and toured. Those bleacher people came to represent the rest of us, bringing Wedekind's tale of sex and suicide even more forcefully into the present. They were townsfolk, witnesses, judges, maybe even accomplices of a sort—and, by proxy, so were we.

Jonathan Berry's ambitious production for Griffin Theatre cuts out the middlemen. There's no balcony, mezzanine, or orchestra seating in the black-box space at Theater Wit, where Berry's Spring Awakening unfolds. Just 94 seats arranged—bleacher-style—on three sides of a long, narrow thrust stage. Audience members can look across that stage into one another's faces. More to the point, they're seldom more than a few feet, and sometimes just a few inches, from actors playing some very volatile kids and their elders. No proxies here.

You'd think the unmitigated intimacy of this arrangement would be an unmitigated plus, but in fact it cuts both ways. Now and then it can work powerfully. Too much of the time, though, it's iffy.

Spring Awakening introduces us to 11 small-town German kids, all of them just far enough over the threshold of adolescence to be in a constant state of, shall we say, agitation. Especially the boys. Georg is obsessed with his piano teacher's abundant bust. Hanschen masturbates to Desdemona from Othello and longs to discuss some of the gayer points of the Iliad with his classmate Ernst. Moritz is in a state of complete distraction over sex, though he lacks any specific notion of what it is. These kids can say the word "trigonometry" in a way that reeks of anticipatory desire.

And that would be perfectly normal in a normal environment. But the parents and teachers of Moritz, Hanschen, and the rest are so repressed and oppressive, so single-mindedly concerned with keeping their children in pristine ignorance, that the very best they can offer in response to that desire is silence—while the worst is something awful indeed. Into this vacuum strides precocious, charismatic Melchior, a boy who's not only read Faust but knows how babies are made. It doesn't turn out well. Spring Awakening has a profound way of exposing the dynamics of small tyrannies: how the emotional energy that's stunted here will show up in a twisted form somewhere else.

In the Broadway and touring productions, all these hothouse urges and inhibitions could be expressed physically, through movement. Choreographer Bill T. Jones gave the kids a series of repetitive, almost fetishized gestures that came across as psychological semaphore signs, indicating both the depth of their obsession and their inability to verbalize it. He also gave them powerful ways to go crazy on those big auditorium stages. Berry's choreographer, Nicole Pellegrino, lacks Jones's resources and hasn't found a consistent substitute for them. Though she manages a couple of amazing numbers—particularly the full-company rendition of "Totally Fucked"—her contributions are necessarily sporadic.

Which forces Berry to rely more on naturalism than the big productions do—and therefore, on the acting chops of his young cast. In certain cases, he's in luck. Aja Wiltshire is simultaneously innocent and sexual as Wendla, whose relationship with Melchior is at the core of Spring Awakening's tragedy. But Josh Salt's Melchior and Matthew Fletcher's Moritz are both vague. Moritz, in particular, needs to register as a desperate misfit, and Fletcher gives us none of that.

Still, several supporting cast members compensate beautifully. Harter Clingman is fierce and funny as Georg. Matthew Babbs displays great pipes as another one of the boys, Otto. Lindsay Leopold is a wised-up, wounded presence as Ilse, a girl who once played with Melchior, Moritz, and Wendla but now finds herself banished from childhood. And despite a truly miserable set of muttonchops, Larry Baldacci shines playing the older men in the tale. As a grieving, guilty father, he crumbles at one point, and the moment is heartbreaking to see up close.

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