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Sex, danger, and dangerous sex: the original adaptation The Spring Awakening Project makes for an intense 90 minutes. The inaugural production of The New Theatre Project, directed by founder and Artistic Director Keith Paul Medelis, uses the rigidly repressed and uninformed adolescents of Frank Wedekind's century-old script to examine the intangible threshold between childhood and adulthood.

The play moves fast, combining elements of song, dance, fantasy, and unlikely narration with more straightforward two-person scenes; although the cadence and immediacy of the tone can feel initially prohibitive, it took me little time to catch up with the characters and sort out each of their stories. Viewers like me, who have never seen the original Spring Awakening or its popular musical adaptation, will be well assisted by a quick Wikipedia overview of the major players and plot points. Most of the plot developments are lifted from the source material, although a few surprises emerge, including the appearance of a delightfully bonkers deus ex machina that makes total sense in the context of the project. True to a young perspective, it seems as though none of these young people has any agency over the the situations that change — and sometimes end — their lives; all the characters can manage is to feel and react and despair.

The product of months of rehearsal and collaboration by the ensemble, although credit for the final script goes to playwright Jason Sebacher, the collective toil and time are evident in the actors' strong connection to the work and its difficult themes. This is important because watching graphically simulated sex acts up close can be inherently (and intentionally) uncomfortable, but the hard-earned and clearly expressed trust of the performers makes it bearable. Many of the stories are of couplings, but the loneliest arc is that of Moritz (Austin Michael Tracy), whose compulsive masturbation, and extreme neuroses dealing therewith, make his life unlivable. Tracy plays his desperation and panic with abundant manic energy and sadness — he makes it painfully clear that there is no way out. As brooding Melchior and trusting Wendla, Caleb Kruzel and Luna Alexander skate the line between innocent and animal attraction; their extreme naivete does not let their emotions catch up with what their bodies want to do. Themes of homosexuality are dealt with frankly in the characters of Hans (Matt Andersen) and Ernst (Ben Stange), as well as the terrible teen misunderstanding that can emerge from loving someone but not desiring the same level of sexual contact as him. Sweet Ilse (Amanda Lyn Jungquist) is a ghostly confidante, yet remains too human to offer real help or answers to any of her schoolmates.

As the theater's home for the next year, the Pot & Box performance space is worth discussing. An asymmetrical, windowless room with tall brick walls painted white, the alternative space resembles nothing so much as the interior of a kiln. (Accordingly, the room did heat up on the warm summer night I attended, but not to the point where it became distracting.) Set and lighting designer Janine Woods Thoma presents a minimalist white forest that complements the space and the production; her lighting design gives surprising movement and also holds a few dazzling tricks. Seating in the round brings each patron close to the action, and the performers also watch quietly when they are not in the scene, adding to the invasive, voyeuristic feel.

The success of The Spring Awakening Project is in taking an endeavor this deeply personal and avoiding the kind of stand-offish navel gazing that makes such pieces targets for derision. Medelis and his team have clearly kept the audience in mind, thinking carefully about how to relate their experience with the project to the viewer. They have thought about this question for months and digested their labor into less than two hours; naturally, the final product is dense with questions and topics for further thought. The production, and the torment it examines with startling honesty, is not easy to watch, yet this play overcomes the difficulty of returning to an adolescent state of mind and evokes a melancholy yearning for one's own innocence.


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