Editors' pick

Spring Awakening

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Editorial Review

REVIEW: Teen angst runs wild in Church Street productions
By Celia Wren
Wednesday, June 20, 2012

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.

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.

BACKSTAGE: Pretty young things
By Jessica Goldstein
Wednesday, June 6, 2012

When Nora Palka saw the original Broadway production of rock musical “Spring Awakening,” she was sitting front row center with her parents on either side. As you can probably imagine, it “was pretty awkward for the sex scene.”

Palka, 22, emerged untraumatized and the Catholic University grad is ready to get even closer to the, ahem, action: She’ll be onstage at Keegan Theatre’s production of “Spring Awakening.” She’s one of the 16 teens and 20-somethings in the show (two older actors play all the grown-up characters).

Palka, who pomp and circumstanced out of Catholic less than a month ago, is set to be in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” at Signature Theatre in Arlington with fellow “Spring Awakening” cast member Vincent Kempski in August.

The 20-year-old Kempski, a rising senior at Catholic University, previously appeared in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “Grease” at Olney. His turn as Melchior, the headstrong, romantic Holden Caulfield-type lead, is “so raw,” he said. “It’s genuine teenage emotion and angst.”

Sarah Chapin, the youngest member of the cast, has a little more time to consider her post-grad game plan; she’s a 17-year-old junior at Marshall High School in Fairfax County. Last year, she was an understudy in Keegan’s “National Pastime.” (She went on for eight performances.)

Before “National Pastime,” she said, “I was a little unsure if I wanted to do this. I wasn’t sure if I could hack it.”

She isn’t worried about that anymore. “I realize that this is definitely what I want to do.”