Strindberg was a Swedish playwright, novelist, poet, essayist and painter. Strindberg’s career spanned four decades, during which time he wrote over 60 plays and more than 30 works of fiction, autobiography, history, cultural analysis, and politics. From his earliest work, Strindberg developed innovative forms of dramatic action, language, and visual composition. He is considered the father of modern Swedish literature and his The Red Room (1879) has frequently been described as the first modern Swedish novel.
Painting and photography offered vehicles for his belief that chance played a crucial part in the creative process. Strindberg’s paintings were unique for their time, and went beyond those of his contemporaries for their radical lack of adherence to visual reality. The 117 paintings (mostly landscapes) that are acknowledged as his were mostly painted within the span of a few years, and are now seen by some as among the most original works of 19th-century art.
(1) Jeune femme demie-nue (1911)
(2) unknown (nude sketch of woman; overview of subject facing viewer and crouched over floor)
Egon Schiele (June 12, 1890 – October 31, 1918) was an Austrian painter. A protégé of Gustav Klimt, Schiele was a major figurative painter of the early 20th century. His work is noted for its intensity, and the many self-portraits the artist produced. The twisted body shapes and the expressive line that characterize Schiele’s paintings and drawings mark the artist as an early exponent of Expressionism.
Egon Schiele June 12, 1890 – October 31, 1918) was an Austrianpainter. A protégé of Gustav Klimt, Schiele was a major figurative painter of the early 20th century. His work is noted for its intensity, and the many self-portraits the artist produced. The twisted body shapes and the expressive line that characterize Schiele’s paintings and drawings mark the artist as an early exponent of Expressionism.
Michael Mayer’s original production of Spring Awakening was an iconic staging, impossible to shake from the mind or to wipe from the senses. In many ways, the acting was secondary to the visual and aural explosion, but it didn’t seem to matter. The music was so rich and the songs were staged with such breathtaking ferocity and/or gentility that the ultimate result was something overpowering, at least to someone experiencing this at an age not far from the characters depicted. I have seen a couple stagings since then: one a mess and one admirable in its focus on truthful, connected performances over bombastic stagecraft. Neither lived up to the original staging and both confirmed my belief that nothing ever could.
I was very, very wrong.
I want to write as generally as possible and avoid spoilers, because one of the things that is so exciting about Michael Arden’s revival is how continually surprising it is; how a show that is so familiar, a show that so recently dominated the consciousness, can suddenly seem so fresh and new. Most of this is due to the doubling of deaf and hearing actors, a Deaf West staple, but employed here to miraculous effect. In a brief note in the Playbill, Arden draws a parallel between Wedekind’s play and the Milan Conference, citing that coincidental pairing as an inspiration. The deaf actors in this production are playing deaf characters, which seems like a simple idea, but becomes more and more involved and illuminating as the show progresses. Wendla, Moritz, and the other deaf characters are deliberately othered and isolated from the larger group. This small community grapples with the communication barrier, making the simultaneous ASL and voiced speech an added layer of tension. Watch how the hearing characters sign to their deaf classmates or how the adults communicate with their children and students. Each interaction is unique and based in character. The performances extend through the body, including through the tips of the fingers. A few select moments are performed only in ASL, accompanied by stark white supertitles, rendering these scenes a chilling and impactful weight that I am experiencing again as I remember them. This communication is something quieter and more intimate than a whisper, an interaction between two people that exists only in the physical – like violence, like sex.
The deaf actors are accompanied (in corporeal and musical terms) by hearing actors who voice their signing. Wearing contemporary clothes in contrast to the others’ period garb, these are not shadow actors – they live in the moment with their counterparts, experiencing their emotional turmoil at a slight remove. They are bonded to their deaf companion like a conscience or guardian angel, like an inner monologue manifest. They share the uncertainty of a changing body, the despair of failure, the ecstasy of a first kiss through a twin-like vicariousness. Remarkably, this doubling does not provide fortification against the outside world for Wendla and Moritz, it isolates them even further: their only ally is someone who isn’t actually there, which makes their relationships with Melchior all the more potent.
The production also explores the beauty of ASL as a descriptive language. It celebrates its depth and grace and its fiercely visceral qualities (watch Moritz sign “another day of utter shit”). The original production achieved a Brechtian distancing through the use of handheld microphones, abrupt lighting shifts, a chalkboard scrawled with the song titles, and actors interspersed with the audience in onstage seating. The revival has some of those tricks up its sleeve at times, but it also achieves a direct alienation through the use of ASL. Brecht’s concept of gestus, a system of physical gestures that reveal the psychological and socio-relational makeup of a character, is in bold display here. The choreography by Spencer Liff is largely gorgeously staged ASL, but the idea of gestus is also present in the dialogue, in how the characters sign to or at one another, expressing themselves with a physical presence alone. As with the best examples of Brecht’s theory, we are separated from the action to allow a closer identification with it. There is an imperceptible shift in our relationship to the material in which we lose the thought that we are consciously watching a deaf actor use sign language to communicate to a hearing actor and it becomes much simpler than that: it is someone who is different trying to communicate with someone who is assimilated. This is a permanent fixture of the human condition, and through an intellectual recognition, mostly subconscious, this facilitates a powerful emotional connection to the characters’ pain and triumph.
I could say how well the production is sung (it is) or acted (that, too, even in the songs there is great attention paid to the dramatic moment). I could talk about the delicate projections that dance on the back wall or how the set is a gray box of surprises. I could mention the source material and how this is the first production of the musical that feels like it is acknowledging the tone of play, the tenets early German expressionism, and the grotesquerie of Moritz, in the play, crawling from his grave with his head in his hands (this production comes the closest to achieving the shock and horror of that moment). But I think by now you understand how absolutely incredible this production is. It is a true ensemble piece, all are equal and all are stunning. From actors making their theatrical debut to Oscar and Emmy-winners, it is a company matched and ready to tackle a story worth telling in a way no story has ever been told. Some theatre is good, but it isn’t necessarily special. This is.