SPRING AWAKENING Promethean Theatre EnsembleGIRLS VS. BOYS The House Theatre of chicagocabaret The hypocrites
He'd be 145 years old if he were around now, but German playwright Frank Wedekind is still a better source for insight into the adolescent soul than the relative kids at the House Theatre of Chicago. Wedekind's 1891 Spring Awakening—famously transformed into a 2006 musical by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater—still feels timely in an era when grown-ups who should know better argue for abstinence-only sex education. The House's new rock musical, Girls vs. Boys, functions better as a showcase for Kevin O'Donnell's blistering songs than as a study of teenagers in emotional peril.
Stephen Murray's staging of Wedekind's play for Promethean Theatre Ensemble attempts to borrow some of the contemporary sheen of the Sheik and Sater musical, in which the songs function as interior monologues for the anguished kids. Snippets of rock play during scene changes, and one or two anachronistic bits of dialogue ("this sucks") work their way into the mouths of teenagers living in a profoundly repressed German provincial town at the end of the 19th century. As Melchior, the defiant atheist of the bunch, Nick Lake even resembles Jonathan Groff, who originated the role in the musical, right down to his unruly mop of dark hair.
But for the most part Murray's production plays it stripped-down and raw. As a result, many moments still have the power to stun, as when Melchior beats fellow teen Wendla at her request because the sheltered girl—her mother still insists that storks bring babies—craves a physical sensation, even if it's pain.
Written by Chris Mathews, Jake Minton, and director Nathan Allen, the book for Girls vs. Boys doesn't give reasons for its kids' troubled state. Maybe it's because they live in a world without adults. In Wedekind's play the grown-ups range from well-meaning mothers to grotesquely vengeful teachers, and their influence is pernicious. The kids in the House show operate without supervision. Or reality, for that matter. The antihero, Casey (Tyler Ravelson), is kept in check by pills cunningly represented as bits of glitter. Considering that he nearly killed his kid sister, Sam, in a fit of rage, mood meds might be a good idea—but not in this show, which takes a page from the Scientology songbook in its sweeping condemnation of pharmaceuticals.
Casey and Sam are caught up in a tangle of romantic conflicts involving George, the school party king, estranged lovers Jason and Lane, and Kate, Jason's new love interest. If the show has an emotional heart it's Casey and Lane's budding romance. Lane, who aborted Jason's baby, and the shut-down Casey (his nickname is "Stonewall") provide a poignant snapshot of what it means to feel like damaged goods when you're practically a child. Nicky Scheunke's tough-girl pose as Lane hides a dark poetic streak—at times she reminded me of Lili Taylor's guitar-toting drama queen in Say Anything, though many of her lyrics get lost in the earsplitting mix of Brett Masteller's sound design.
But Allen's production tends to substitute club-kid voguing for emotional truth. Most troubling are the silver-glitter guns that the kids tote around and point at each other. As metaphors for the battle of the sexes, they're trite. And in a city where teenagers are all too frequently killed by real guns, they trivialize the toll violence takes on young people. Girls vs. Boys's climax does the same. In Wedekind's play, by contrast, the human cost of ignorance, brutality, and despair come through with heartbreaking clarity.
Sugarcoating emotional trauma is, of course, a House specialty. Even their smash production of The Sparrow managed to bypass the horrendous tragedy at its center in favor of cozy homilies about the need for community healing. Wedekind is a hell of a lot smarter about human nature. He understands that a culture of infantilization inevitably leads to a culture of death (since only a child, or a childish mind, could accept the simplistic good vs. evil narratives that have guided, say, the war on terror) and that the great lesson of adolescence is that, if you're lucky, you get past it and learn to face your demons head-on. Girls vs. Boys tries to anatomize youth culture as an endless roundelay of emotionally charged hookups interspersed with dance numbers. The killer songs and high-spirited House energy come off here as a case of post-adolescent artists trying to keep the party going past closing time. v