Costumes, Set, and Technical Design Breathe New Life into a Familiar Coming of Age Tale

by Marguerite Saxton

The 1800’s brought many influential things to Germany: Adolf Hitler, Nietzsche, The Brothers Grimm and the infinite creep factor of “Der Struwwelpeter” (Google it!). This is the backdrop for Arizona Repertory Theatre’s season finale, Spring Awakening.

Michael Schulz as Melchior and Rachel Franke as Wendla. Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

Spring Awakening is based on the late 19th century play The Awakening Spring, A Children’s Tragedy by German playwright Frank Wedekind. This modernized version is an austere depiction of oppression, rebellion, and sexuality, featuring maturing kids finding their bodies amongst shifting roles – girls drool over guys who don’t care about anything but are good at everything, while the guys suffer explicit fantasies about their piano teachers. Typical.

Spring is “a time to be born, a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted…” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). In this lusty season of rebirth we find ourselves sowing metaphorical seeds for the future. Spring Awakening’s director Hank Stratton has expressed that it’s necessary to have death in order to have new life. And what is a more fitting way to celebrate Eostre, the Germanic goddess of spring, than with awkward teenage S.E.X.?

This multiple-Tony winning musical features Steven Sater’s cringy, angsty songs about new ways to touch oneself. But Stratton, according to his recent interview in the Arizona Daily Star, is okay with that. He “expects some audience members to be uncomfortable.” And well, it is.

Yet, this is a show of contrasts. While hopelessness pervades, a spirit of dissent runs almost as wild as the hormones. Though conscientiously directed, the obvious opposites within the script create scenes that are confusing but, in a way, accurate to that time when seemingly everyone was mystified by human sexuality.

The motifs in the story are predictable: adults vs. kids, sex vs. chastity, pleasure vs. pain. A bit cliché. How many times have we seen this story? Girl has sex, gets pregnant, and has a terrible life while the boy basically gets to be the bad ass. Though the narrative starts out strong and funny, it unfortunately flickers out.

While the script leaves something to be desired, there are key performances that pack a punch: much of the movement is purposeful and well timed – a particularly satisfying scene features caustic schoolmasters, headbanging, and air-guitars. And there were stand out vocals by actors Jared Machado (Georg/Dieter) and Rachel Franke (Wendla).
Another gem in the script is the queer love story. Its nuanced vulnerability adds dimension to a predominantly straight tale. This was an astute detail to add to an otherwise familiar story.

Zach Zupke as Moritz and Gabriela Giusti as Ilse. Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

Where this play really shines is with the set design, technical, and costuming teams. The design of the theater is such that some audience members sit only feet from a technician, but wouldn’t know it due to the team’s utmost professionalism. They execute their jobs efficiently and in perfect unison. And the design team finds new ways to tell an old story. The set explores space in funky ways thanks to Scenic Designer, Joe C. Klug. Chairs hang from ceilings and the floors become a place to take notes. Tori Mays, Lighting Designer, rounds out a visually creative production with unlikely textural choices, employing geometric gobos and infusing many scenes with disconcerting chartreuse. Costume Designer, Ryan B. Moore, goes for symbolic touches by stitching tiny crosses of Peter onto the boys’ uniforms. This cross is a common symbol in counter-culture scenes, serving as a sneaky reference to the defiant nature of the students.

Another great component of this production was the live musical accompaniment – a classy touch that fosters a multisensory opportunity to connect with the play’s ethos. In many other productions they’d be hidden in a pit, but in this production they are instead proudly displayed for the audience as an essential organ, pumping their feet in tune, plucking their fingers in a rhythmic heartbeat that circulates vital energy throughout.
The script is predictable, but the execution of the production is done with gusto and skill. It’s clear those working on Spring Awakening are truly invested in this piece. This season’s final show at Arizona Repertory Theatre may not have awakened all of the senses, but it energizes one into the next phase, however screwy that may be.

Spring Awakening is directed by Hank Stratton and shows at Arizona Repertory Theatre from 4/7 through 4/28. Tickets can be purchased at https://theatre.arizona.edu/shows/spring-awakening/.

 

Editor’s Note: We mistakenly credited Richard Tuckett as the costume designer in a previous version of this article. In fact, Ryan B. Moore, a second year MFA student, was the costume designer for this production of Spring Awakening.

ART’s Top Girls Showcases Top Female Talent

by Holly Griffith

Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls is a big play. Big personalities, big themes, big scenes. David Morden directs Arizona Repertory Theatre’s production deftly, and while the production has weak moments, this cast does an impressive job juggling a complex web of characters, navigating difficult dialogue rhythms, and bringing the evening to a harrowing climax.

The play opens with a challenging scene, where the central character Marlene, played by Rebecca Galcik, hosts a dreamlike dinner party for six women from history. Some are real historical figures, some are characters from folklore, but all arrive with stories to tell. Churchill writes the scene to be fast-paced, with many lines overlapping, as the women discuss their relationships with men and children, their adventures around the world, and their thoughts on religion and philosophy. It is a feast for anyone who has yearned for the advice and wit of those who have gone before us. Given the pacing, the larger than life personalities, the odd theatrical conceit, the difficult subject material, and the four different dialects used onstage, this is an extremely difficult scene to pull off, and a few moments were lost in the shuffle. As someone unfamiliar with the play, the scene was somewhat hard to follow, and I wished Morden had encouraged a slower pace and more demonstrative blocking where possible, especially near the beginning of the scene.

The remaining scenes of the play, however, are worth the wait. The play shifts time, place, and theatrical style, and we get a glimpse into Marlene’s life as a successful businesswoman, and the challenges that come with being a woman at the top. Six of the seven actors play entirely new characters, some of them multiple new characters, and Morden’s casting is masterful. Each actor slips into the skin of someone new, while retaining thematic vestiges of the dinner party scene. Elana Richardson’s Pope Joan character transforms into Joyce, the working class sister of Marlene. Richardson remains stoic, like her papal counterpart from scene one, but adds a downtrodden jadedness more appropriate for Joyce’s socio-economic situation. Eavan Clare Brunswick portrays the Scottish explorer Isabella Bird in the first scene with a proud earthiness, and later becomes Mrs. Kidd, a woman who tries to protect her husband’s job by desperately attempting to unseat Marlene from her high-powered position. While the earthiness of Isabella vanishes, the boldness and sense of pride remains. It was a joy to watch these shape-shifting women command the stage with ever more nuanced performances.

Perhaps the most exciting transformation is in the hands of Maggie McNeil. She arrives at the dinner party as the folkloric Dull Gret, a nearly-mute spud of a woman dressed in battle armor, who seems primarily concerned with getting more to eat. McNeil, with few lines, becomes a highlight of the scene, radiating with childlike curiosity and coarse table manners. The scene ends with an engrossing description of Gret’s brutish invasion of hell. In the following scenes, McNeil plays the devilish teenager Angie, who resents Joyce’s tough love approach to parenting. She captures the feverish energy of teen life without too much wackiness. McNeil’s Angie is magnetic, radiant, and frightening. McNeil plays two characters whose humanity is interrupted by violence, and she strikes that balance beautifully.

The final scene of the play between Marlene and Joyce is also stunning. Galcik and Richardson know this scene inside and out. The two sisters argue over the central problem of the play—Angie is really Marlene’s child, but was raised by Joyce. The two navigate the would-have, could-haves of their past, unearthing resentments and illustrating the nearly impossible situation that Womanhood has put them in. Their dialogue flows like a river, hitting high points and low points, splashing against barriers and overflowing with rising tension. The two perform the scene with an excellent handle on the rhythms of the language and the vulnerability of their characters.

A word on the technical elements of this piece. Allison Morones has a huge job costuming 7 actors as 16 characters, all of whom change clothes, and most of whom change hairstyle. With few missteps, the costumes fit seamlessly into their world. Even the myriad wigs, which can be distracting if not used well, are consistent in their strangeness. They function similarly to masks in this production, giving a tongue-in-cheek nod to the double-casting in the play. Additionally, director David Morden achieves an almost impossible feat of coaching at least four dialects, ranging from Scottish to Japanese. While some actors handled dialect more naturally than others (Eavan Clare Brunswick has executed 3 different dialects this season, all masterfully), I was impressed with the consistency and range of dialects onstage.

I want to take a moment to praise ART for producing not one but two plays this season with all-female casts. The technical and design team for Top Girls is also a majority of women. It is empowering to watch women hold space onstage for an entire evening, and it gives female artists a chance to work together in ways that are rare in the performing arts. At the same time, I wish the University had more female directors. While I applaud Morden’s work on Top Girls, it also occurred to me that white men will direct almost all the main stage productions at ART this season. I hope that the University will consider diversifying their staff, especially when it comes to faculty with directing qualifications.

Top Girls runs at Arizona Repertory Theatre through Sunday, February 24th. Tickets are available online through the ART box office: 520-621-1162 or theatre.arizona.edu.

 

Editor’s Note: While Holly is an adjunct instructor in the School of Theatre, Film, and Television, she has no relationship with any students involved in Top Girls, personally or professionally. Additionally, Holly has worked professionally with David Morden. While this does not impact how a performance is reviewed, we feel it is important to disclose any potential biases.