Teen angst is everywhere in Keegan’s ‘Spring Awakening’ and ‘Cuchullain’

C. Stanley Photography - MaryKate Brouillet, Sean Burns, and Emily Dey, top from left and Ali Hoxie and Vincent Kempski, bottom, in The Keegan Theatre's production of “Spring Awakening.”

The Mrs. Grundys of this world might want to give a wide berth to the Church Street Theater for a few weeks: The two spirited and affecting productions running in that venue, courtesy of the Keegan Theatre, present visions of youthful ids running wild.

In a taut and stirringly acted version of the Steven Sater-Duncan Sheik musical “Spring Awakening,” based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 drama, adolescent characters grapple with sexuality and rage at the repressive adult world. And in Rosemary Jenkinson’s world-premiere play “Cuchullain,” an endearingly impulsive and foul-mouthed modern 19-year-old ingests drugs and alcohol as if he’d worked out a personal immunity deal with mortality.

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If the theme of teenage rebellion unites both works, it has a more profound edge in “Spring Awakening.” Co-directors Mark A. Rhea and Susan Marie Rhea’s production of the Tony-winning musical (whose touring incarnation hit the Kennedy Center in 2009) features a cast of gifted young actors who turn in eloquent portraits of passion, frustration and vulnerability. In the show’s opening sequence, the heroine Wendla (Ali Hoxie) cuts a wistful figure as she stands on a terrace, unleashing the yearning in the number “Mama Who Bore Me.” (As is the case with other performers in the production, Hoxie has a melodious voice that will no doubt gain strength later in her career. Music director and pianist Jake Null leads the fine 10-person orchestra, which sits onstage, beneath the terrace. Mark Rhea designed the set.)

Minutes later, on the stage’s main level, schoolboy characters in gray uniforms storm through the song “The B---- of Living,” stomping on the floor, brandishing chairs like shields and, in the case of one performer, bouncing — soles of the feet making contact, body horizontal — off the theater’s side wall. (Assistant director Kurt Boehm is choreographer.) The energy that surges through this number — and through Allan Sean Weeks’s rock-concert lighting design — courses, subtly or obviously, through the entire production.

Some aspects of the staging — that stomping sequence, for instance, or the wintry tree-branch pattern on part of the stage’s surface — carry strong echoes of the Broadway version. And actors Charlotte Akin and Jon Townson sometimes fold a little too much caricature into their interpretations of adult figures. But it’s hard to quibble when the package as a whole is so effective. Vincent Kempski is particularly charismatic as the smart, mutinous hero Melchior: The scene in which Melchior first strikes up a conversation with Wendla is a triumph of adolescent awkwardness, all pauses and averted gazes and simmering chemistry. The vocally gifted Paul Scanlan brings a persuasive desperation and restlessness to the misfit Moritz, Nora Palka is poignantly scarred and waifish as the outcast Ilsa, and Sarah Chapin radiates trauma as an abused girl named Martha.

Teenage disaffection has a more upbeat tone in “Cuchullain,” a one-actor show that — as Jenkinson’s “Basra Boy” did last year — careens through a seedy Belfast cityscape populated by vibrant eccentrics. Performer Josh Sticklin, who infused “Basra Boy” with humor and zest, is equally irresistible as the hedonistic 19-year-old Aaron, whose idea of gainful employment is doing drugs in the park and then convincing a social services office that he is mentally ill (and thus deserving of generous welfare support).

Aaron’s sordid tale should, by rights, be a downer. But, as embodied by Sticklin — jeans, T-shirt, red sneakers, spiky hair, animated body language — the character is so exuberant and oddly innocent that to share his company is to be caught up in an exhilarating whirl of ad­ven­ture, impish defiance and consoling camaraderie. (“Basra Boy” director Abigail Isaac repeats her staging duties here.)

Jenkinson’s script brims with slangy poetry and infectious rhythms. Aaron describes a nurse’s eyes as “spinnin’ around like two fruits in a slot machine,” and he hears sea gulls “cryin’ high like banshees” as he escapes a crime scene in a car that’s “a rave-on-wheels.” (A handout supplies a helpful glossary to Belfast idioms.) Shimmying up a flagpole to steal an Irish tricolor, skidding down a park slope while high on pills — whatever he’s doing, Aaron seems to experience life in a rush of intensity. Watching him, we do, too.

Wren is a freelance writer.

Spring Awakening

based on the play by Frank Wedekind; book and lyrics, Steven Sater; music, Duncan Sheik; string orchestrations, Simon Hale; vocal arrangements, AnnMarie Milazzo. Directed by Mark A. Rhea and Susan Marie Rhea; assistant choreographer, Katie McManus; costume design, Kelly Peacock and Shadia Hafiz; hair and makeup, Craig Miller. With Nick Lehan, Stephen Murray, Gannon O’Brien and others. About 2 hours,
15 minutes. Through July 8.

Cuchullain

by Rosemary Jenkinson. Direction and sound design by Abigail Isaac; costume design, Emily Riehl-Bedford; lighting, Michael Innocenti; fight choreography, Kyle Encinas. 75 minutes. Through July 1. Both productions are at the Church Street Theater, 1742 Church St. NW. Call 703-892-0202 or visit www.keegantheatre.com.

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