By Quinn Rigg
Youth is exciting. Youth is invigorating. And youth is utterly terrifying.
Confusion derived from inexperience is expounded by a frustrating lack of agency. The spectre of expectation and obligation haunts all young people as they come of age. The fear and frustration of this social disenfranchisement is often known as “teen angst,” which has been well documented by the likes of Kurt Cobain, Billy Joe Armstrong and now, Blank Theatre company with its stylized rendition of Spring Awakening.
Aiming to reflect on the tragic pain and fragile hope of oppressed youth, Blank Theatre’s production is an impressive first outing for the fledgling company. Mounting the blood-pumping punk rock classic (a synopsis of which may be found here) in the intimate space of the Frontier Theater, Blank lives up to its name—the only set pieces consist of six black chairs surrounded by white walls and floors. The aptly-named company has done well to create opportunity from the size constraints of the space; through the work of AnnMarie Milazzo and Simon Hale, the robust score is effectively reorchestrated for a four-piece band, which fits snugly along the wall.
As opposed to an obstacle, the small white box becomes an enticing microscope in which grounded subtlety is greatly rewarded; director Danny Kapinos and choreographer Britta Lynn Schlicht lean into the space’s scarce square footage, creating compelling tableaus and heightening tension as audience sits so closely to—and within—the action of such emotionally raw material.
The scathing violence and contentious intimacy within this show are particularly engrossing when in such close proximity. Fight choreographer Brian Plocharczyk and intimacy designer Zack Payne have created motivated, captivating moments in the space; every smack, grunt, scream and whimper resounds viscerally in the Frontier.
While this production has managed to captivate the claustrophobic intensity befitting of musical theatre’s punk rock flagship, it has not eased into the space without growing pains.
The claustrophobia that makes the drama of the play so much more enticing does not favor large ensemble movement, as evidenced in numbers like “My Junk” or “Touch Me.” While the abstract stylization of Schlicht’s choreography is often fluid and aesthetically rich, the narrative focus is lost through the visual noise that so many moving bodies create. The conceit of certain numbers (in this case, the discovery of masturbation in “My Junk”) is dropped almost entirely before the musical (and literal) climax of the score— narrative substance is sometimes removed in favor of stylized movement.
Throughout this show, it is at moments of stillness where the stylization finds focus and narrative clarity: some of the most striking choreographic moments of the show lie in the hard-hitting tableaus of “Bitch of Living,” the tender simplicity of “Left Behind” or the reverence of “I Believe.” The movement begins to falter in function whenever it thrusts too much visual feedback into such a small space.
As with the choreography, Kapinos’ direction revels in moments of stillness: (spoiler warning) the quiet intensity of Moritz’s suicide, the cutting abuse of the Stiefel household, the mistake of youthful ecstasy as Wendla and Melchior hungrily and curiously explore one another…. The depth of intimate relationships in the tiny void of the space is incredibly compelling.
Unfortunately, as with the choreography, the direction begins to blur and flatten whenever there are more than three bodies onstage. The pace of the show quickens to a manic pace in group dialogue scenes, blurring dialogue as lines are said over one another, leaving no time for the audience to digest the information they are given.
Confusion surrounding the quick pace is not helped by a lack of character specificity in the ensemble; it is unclear when an ensemble member has shifted characters, as there is no visual indication (costume or otherwise) that they have changed roles or location. Especially perplexing is that the Adult Man and Adult Women (played with commanding presence and versatility by Mike Weaver and Lisa Savegnago, respectively) differentiate their many characters through changes in posture and costume—a small but simple act that could have helped specify character in the ensemble
Despite missed hurdles in adapting to the space and clarifying time and place, Blank’s premiere is still a thrilling showcase of young talent in the Chicago area. Jeremiah Alsop shines as Melchior Gabor, presenting a grounded, yet dynamic presence on stage. The warmth Alsop provides to scene partners is an apt match to the warmth of his voice. Sam Shankman embodies the humanizing and heartbreaking anxieties of a struggling youth in his portrayal of Moritz Stiefel. Shankman’s bombasity plays incredibly well with the resolute competence of Alsop’s Melchior, and Wendla Bergmann is portrayed with youthful curiosity and sung with incredible facility by Haley Bolithon.
Frankly, the entire cast is incredibly competent and enthralling to watch—an ensemble of notable young voices to be treasured in the Chicago theatre community for seasons to come.
Backing up such a capable cast is an equally talented band led by music director Tyler Miles. Violinst Daniel Ventura, bassist Rachel Hernandez, and percussionist Courtney McNally maintain the musical pulse of this production.
Of additional note is the striking and dynamic lighting design of Shelbi Arndt. Her saturated color pallets and stark lighting placements imbue the void white space with texture and life, accurately indicating physical location and aptly reflecting the stakes of a given scene.
While the thrill and fear of youth may come and go, the voices of this production will hopefully remain in the Chicago community for a long while yet. As Blank Theatre continues to mature as a company, it will continue to work through growing pains and turn constrictions into valuable opportunities.
Blank Theatre presents “Spring Awakening” through Sept. 30 at the Frontier Theatre, 1106 W. Thorndale Avenue. Additional information and tickets may be found here.