MANKATO — There is nothing shy about Minnesota State University’s upcoming production of “Spring Awakening.”
But, there is plenty of shame.
In a dichotomous production that pitches rock music against a moribund backdrop of repressive social values, sexual taboos of various forms are blown wide open on stage. The award-winning rock musical is based on a work originally written by German playwright Frank Wedekind in 1891. Banned at the time for its frank portrayal of rape, homosexuality, sadomasochism, abuse and abortion, the play remained controversial and relatively un-performed for decades afterward.
In its contemporary form, “Spring Awakening” focuses on a group of turn-of-the-century German youths struggling to make sense of their blooming sexuality. Suffering under draconian Victorian-era mores about sex and the self, youthful naiveté leads to painful and sometimes disastrous consequences.
Director Paul Hustoles said he taught the original play for 30 years and fully expects the graphic sexual (and lyrical) content will offend some audience members. But that, he said, only underscores the play’s driving mission — to challenge the uncomfortability we still harbor toward human sexuality.
“Indeed, that is what the play is about,” said Hustoles, who is also the chair of MSU’s Department of Theatre and Dance. “I think it is very disturbing. I think some people will leave or want to leave the performance because of this.”
Like many in the cast, Jake McInerney had to overcome his own uncomfortabilities in assuming the role of Melchior, a progressive and literate youth who serves as a sort of tutor to his sexually uninformed counterparts.
In one scene, Melchior is lying in a meadow when he is happened upon by Wendla, a shy yet curious young woman played by Callie Syverson, a junior in musical theatre. As Wendla recounts the discovery of her friend’s abuse, she asks Melchior to beat her with a switch so that she might feel the same pain. In a scene fraught with violent, lustful energy, Melchior complies.
“You kind of have to have no shame,” said McInerney, also a junior musical theatre major. “The taboos that are dealt with in this show — you couldn’t play them effectively if you felt that shame yourself.”
Those who come for the powerful narrative, however, should stay for the technical elements.
From the opening scene in which the powerfully-voiced Syverson delivers the haunting ballad “Mama Who Bore Me,” the play continues on an unrelentingly taut narrative trajectory. That intensity is encouraged by the play’s highly synchronized mise en scene.
In songs that recall the turbidity of young emotion, student choreographer Alexis Heruth employs angular, disjointed motions. In more heartfelt ballads, she uses lighter, subtler movements that emphasize vulnerability and innocence.
The set’s simple, rural appearance belies its more thematic and practical uses. Student scene designer Alisa Bowman chose a barn-like design that offers a hayloft for the play’s climactic scene as well as ground-level recesses for depth. Furthermore, because Hustoles and student musical director Evan Collins are keeping the chorus on stage at all times, the set needed to be large enough to hold the entire cast, but discreet enough to avoid dominating the limited stage space available in the Andreas Theatre.
The ever-present chorus lends weight to the musical selections, Hustoles said, as does the decision to cue every light in the theatre during songs in order to convey a concert-like atmosphere.
Combined with the light and costume design from faculty members Steve Smith and David McCarl, respectively, the stage becomes a crucible of roiling energy.
“These kids are all trying to find something,” Syverson said. “They all feel like they are missing something.”