Monday, October 5, 2015

NYC Theater Reviews—‘Antigone' at BAM; ‘Spring Awakening’ on Broadway

Written by Sophocles; translated by Anne Carson
Directed by Ivo van Hove
Performances through October 4, 2015
BAM Harvey Theatre, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY

Spring Awakening
Music by Duncan Sheik; book and lyrics by Steven Sater
Choreographed by Spencer Liff; directed by Michael Arden
Performances through January 24, 2016
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street, New York, NY

Juliette Binoche as Antigone at BAM (photo: Stephanie Berger)
Sophocles' classic tragedy Antigone, about the conflict between the individual and the state— is it ethical or right for a grieving sister to bury her brother even though it's expressly forbidden by the king's law?—has been given a workable new translation by Anne Carson, despite the ill-advised decision to allow the characters themselves to speak the words of the omitted chorus: what might be thought anachronistic is vital to a drama still relevant 2500 years after it was written.

Still, Carson's adaptation is certainly playable, so it's disappointing that director Ivo van Hove has created such a ponderous staging. One yearns for the director's infamous idiosyncrasies, which he has used in the past to do (or undo) works by Ingmar Bergman, Lillian Hellman and others. However, his Antigone, on a monochrome set of modern furniture in front, a large wall showing mainly irrelevant video imagery at the back and a circular opening in said wall that becomes alternately a blazing or eclipsed sun, passes by with nary a flicker of originality or illumination.

Even the ominous soundscape—which Daniel Freitag sculpted from musical fragments by Arvo Part, Henryk Gorecki, Morton Feldman and even Lou Reed, whose "Heroin" ends the proceedings in van Hove's usual way, as a pseudo-hip pop-song cue—comes off half-baked, not even witty. And most disheartening is the lackluster acting: even a luminous movie star like Juliette Binoche inhabits the title role in a curiously inert fashion. 

Sandra Mae Frank and Austin P. McKenzie in Spring Awakening (photo: Joan Marcus)
I doubt that Broadway was breathlessly awaiting a revival of Spring Awakening—Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's mediocre musical based on Frank Wedekind's classic 1891 play about sexual confusion among teenagers—but that hasn't stopped director Michael Arden. His gimmick? Populating his cast and musicians with both hearing and deaf performers who use American sign language (ASL) throughout the show. 

For example, the tragic heroine Wendla is enacted by charming deaf actress Sandra Mae Frank while her dialogue and songs are voiced by the equally talented (and hearing) actress Katie Boeck. Other teenagers, parents and teachers are played by a combination of signing deaf and hearing performers; if the fatal disconnect in the world of the original play is underlined too insistently in Arden's production, he and choreographer Spencer Liff have provided an inventive and continuous flow of onstage activity—the show begins with an almost too clever evocation of what's to come, with actresses Frank and Boeck on either side of a mirror—to help make credible Arden's original notion.

But a little of this goes a long way, since there are times when it's unclear who exactly is speaking or singing: such (deliberate?) confusion doesn't exactly parallel Wedekind's artfully rendered perturbation. Neither do Sheik's colorless tunes and Sater's flavorless lyrics get at the nuances of Wedekind's insightful exploration of adolescent psychology: in fact, whenever the dialogue ends and the songs begin, Spring Awakening screeches to a complete halt.

The large cast is energetic and mostly accomplished, with Patrick Page and Camryn Manheim performing various adults with gusto. If Frank's Wendla is less memorably innocent and sexually curious than Lea Michele in the original production, that's only because she's not Lea Michele (who also had—has—a killer voice). Likewise, Austin P. McKenzie and Daniel N. Durant as male protagonists Melichor and Moritz aren't a patch on Jonathan Groff and John Gallagher Jr. from the original, both of whom—like Michele—went on to bigger and better things.

Here's hoping that, with all the attention the return of Spring Awakening is getting, someone will bring back Wedekind's original play, which desperately needs a revival, since it's still contemporary and relevant without the musical trappings.

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