Theater Review: Wilbury Group Takes A Step Back In Time With ‘Spring Awakening’

May 25, 2017

With the summer theater scene about to begin, Providence's Wilbury Group has taken a step back in time. Maybe it's a trend, says Rhode Island Public Radio's Bill Gale.

First the Gamm Theater closed its season with a play called “King Elizabeth,” which was set some 500 years ago. Then Trinity Rep checked in with a Spanish play roughly from the same era.

Now the often provocative Wilbury Group has delivered another back-to-the -future piece. This one is from the 19th Century and is called – with some tongue in cheek – “Spring Awakening.”

Written by a provocative German author, Frank Wedekind,  it is a searing look at being a teenager. Wedekind drew, of course, on his own background to look at the trials and tribulations mixed, once in a while, with joy and love of young people beginning to know their power and, more prominently, their lack of the same.

This work, originally, was a rough-edged view of what the author thought could be a terribly difficult time in anyone's life. Nowadays, “Spring Awakening” is – for heaven's sake – a Tony Award-winning musical.

At the Wilbury, it is also a vibrant, often brilliant version of this controversial drama. 

On a three-part acting space with the most prominent being a wooden, white paint-dappled stage that can be -- and often is -- spun and spun and spun -- with a remarkably fast pace.  It's a spin that seems much like teenage life.

We watch – up close and very personal in the Wilbury's small theater space - as the kids fight violently and try to love sometimes too. We see them terrorized by out-of-realism teachers clomping about on great stilts and carrying weapons to threaten the kids.

We see the youngsters up close and personal, heaving and trying -- and rarely succeeding -- to find their way.

At the Wilbury, Artistic Director Josh Short has carefully and wisely turned to young actors. Most of the cast seems only a year or three away from their teen time. This daring choice works well. The youngsters careen, leap and roar around the ever present mess of a stage setting. The spinning board and never-slowing young people allow for a vibrancy that is both exciting and truthful.

The cast is filled with good upcoming actors. Two, Katrina Z. Pavao and Bradley Wilson are splendid young lovers. Their duets are filled with love and need, power and weakness. Among the others Gunnar Manchester stands out in all ways. And there's a three-man band that makes this “Spring Awakening” a treat, amid all of the fuss and fun.

Now with that said, also know that this old work made new can be difficult to watch.

There are such things as on-stage masturbation and the whipping, done with great realism, of a young girl. An abortion is nothing but heartbreaking realism.

But, then, “Spring Awakening”  is a piece of art, without doubt, and the Wilbury, young and strong, has done it well. It is a work that has its say and is worth seeing – if you can handle it.

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“Spring Awakening”  continues at the Wilbury Group through June 11. Bill Gale reviews the performing arts for Rhode Island Public Radio.