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A CurtainUp Review
God of Vengeance & Spring Awakening
Marvell Rep which last year brought us a wonderful revival of The Three-Penny Opera is back with a sizzling twin bill of Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance and Frank Wedekind’s Spring’s Awakening at the TBG Theatre. Both plays deal with hot button issues like teen age sex, abortion, suicide, lesbianism and are peppered with references to racy Bible stories and pull no punches and resonate with recent headlines on troubled youth.
If you plan to see both, I'd suggest that you see God of Vengeance first. Written in Yiddish in 1907, this sex tragedy vibrates with themes that will be amped-up with more burning intensity in Spring’s Awakening.
First produced in Berlin in 1910 by the famous Max Reinhardt, it globe-trotted on to Paris, London, and New York. German, Russian, Polish, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, and Italian translations preceded an English-speaking version at the Provincetown Theater. That production transferred to Broadway’s Apollo Theater in February 1923 where it met with controversy and criticism, with one critic calling it “an ugly story” that was “hopelessly foreign to our Anglo-Saxon taste.” It gained more notoriety when police raided the theater and arrested the cast. They later appeared in court on charges of promoting obscenity and vice.
The story revolves around a Polish brothel keeper named Yankl (Sam Tsoutsouvas) who hopes to curry favor with God as well improve his standing in the community by marrying his 17-year-old daughter Rivkele (Leanne Agmon) to an aspiring scribe. However, his dreams are shattered when his daughter rebels and runs off with one of his kind-hearted whores. Yankl manages to find his “fallen” daughter and bring her home again. He and his wife Sore (Joy Franz) try to redirect her to a purer life, reinforced by the counsel of Jewish scribes, but all come to the painful recognition that “what is done cannot be undone.”
Tsoutsouvas as Yankl, Franz as Sore, and Agmon as Rivkele, ring true in the key performances. The ensemble acting is also solid. Lenny Leibowitz’s enterprising direction is on a par with the acting, and his brisk pacing makes this provocative production clock in at under 90 minutes. To accentuate the tragic tone of the work, TijanaBjelajac’s Spartan set is quite drab. Nicole V. Moody’s austerely-styled clothes for the scribes effectively contrasting with the prostitute’s risqué outfits. This is a rare opportunity to see a play that raised thousands of eye-brows back in 1923, brought the first lesbian love scene (and kiss) to Broadway,.
Spring’s Awakening is a more long-winded piece, running close to three hours. Theatergoers will be more familiar with this German drama by Wedekind through the hit Broadway musical of the same name. A visit to the current revival, however, will reveal that the musical spin-off was but a sanitized version of the incendiary coming-of-age story. It points up how teens often find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place as they encounter the harsh realities of the adult world, and suffer under the authority of adults who have an exalted standard of conscience and mores.
The play follows a number of young characters who are experiencing the first stirrings of their sexuality while trying to balance the existing moral code, which divides the world between Want To and Supposed To. The various vignettes gradually create a multi-layered tapestry of youth in raw psychological distress.
Once again under the capable direction Lenny Leibowitz, Spring Awakening is executed at a more leisurely pace. It includes enough comic scenes to avoid sagging under its own dramatic weight. Unfortunately, the most shocking scene of the evening came via the theater’s fire alarm suddenly going off in Act 2, bringing a crew of real fire fighters to the theater — bringing the evening to an abrupt ending that makes it impossible for me to go into any detail about the production overall.
Based on what I saw I can say that all the fresh-faced cast member appeared to be holding their own and that all the veteran actors were appropriately pinching their faces into righteous demeanors and getting their spines squarely aligned with their stiff-backed chairs. Tijana Bjelajac set design is simplicity itself, including a tree branch with delicate blooms overhanging the stage area. Susan Nester’s array of costumes brings Germanic authenticity to the production, with the young male students wearing school uniforms apropos to provincial Germany in 1892, complete with knee-length knickers and conservative-styled shirts, and the young girls outfitted in simple, flowing dresses.
Marvell Rep has gained a reputation for bringing enduring works in rotation to the New York boards. Any theater goer who ventures to either of these plays roductions won’t be getting fluff but a serious infusion of art.
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