Comiromantitragedy

As I’ve mentioned previously, I saw the Sunday matinee performance of Spring Awakening, the musical interpretation of a nineteenth century play by German writer Frank Wedekind. It won the Tony for Best Musical in 2007, and for good reason–it’s an amazing show. But I have to admit that it left me feeling a little bit off for some reason; it was hard to shake off the, for lack of a better word, dark and melancholy feeling that sort of settled over me throughout the entire performance. Another word I’ve used to describe the show is “creepy”, which is hardly illuminating. I think I might have isolated in part what makes the show so damn creepy, and while it rankles even after you leave the theater. (This discussion will probably be of no use to anyone who hasn’t seen but plans on seeing the play and doesn’t want to be spoiled. Just a warning.)

The show starts out like your typical adolescent coming-of-age comedy, for the most part, sort of like American Pie but everybody’s a bit younger. Sure, it’s taking place in 1891 in Germany, but whatevs, same diff. There’s masturbation humor and homoerotic subtext a la History Boys and Stiffler’s mom-type jokes and girl/boy meet-cutes, everything you could want in an adolescent Apotovian comedy, basically. The show opens with a funny scene between main female protagonist, fourteen-year-old Wendla Bergmann, and her mother, as Wendla begs to be informed finally where babies come from and her extremely agitated mother simply tells her that when a woman loves her husband, she becomes pregnant. Now, the contemporary feel of the play distracts you from the blatant irresponsibility of this act on the part of Wendla’s mother; my parents never explained sex to me, but I had sexual education in school and I watched television, so I got the message pretty quickly and way before I turned fourteen. But Wendla is a young woman in 1891 and all her girlfriends are just as clueless as she is–they literally have no other way to learn about sex but from the adult women in their lives, who refuse to teach them and thus leave them unprepared for real-life sexual situations that, I’m sorry, have existed since the beginning of human history, namely: TEENS ARE GOING TO HAVE SEX. Ignorance is not an obstacle to that fundamental condition.

This is problematic for several reasons, the biggest being that Wendla has sex without connecting it with the act of procreation; if she had known that was how babies were made, she probably wouldn’t have submitted to Malchior in the hayloft. Once she finds out she is pregnant, she reminds her mother that as far as she knew you could only get pregnant by loving your husband, and since Malchior is not her husband she figured she was pretty good on the contraception front. DUH. But I’m getting off topic. Here, an originally comic situation–parental discomfort with teen sexual curiosity and avoidance of the issue, which we see in a hundred sitcoms every year in some form or another–becomes a devastatingly tragic one when Wendla, completely clueless, has sex and gets pregnant and then ultimately (SPOILER! SERIOUSLY) dies from a botched abortion.

Another example of this is the relationship between Wendla and Malchior. Here, we have another typical teen comedy set-up: the smart, secretly sensitive radical falls in love with the sweet, mousy virgin, and vice versa, but forces–parents, teachers, various other teen dramas–conspire to keep them apart. Except that, almost from the beginning, the relationship is tinged with–and then drowned by–darkness, because Malchior and especially Wendla misinterpret sexual and romantic longing and the desire to feel something translates into a violent encounter where Wendla begs Malchior to beat her and Malchior becomes exceedingly aggressive. Though Wendla and Malchior eventually have what appears to be relatively tender (though awkward) sex later, the fact that Malchior knows about sex and its physical consequences (although he, like Wendla, must be ignorant of the social and emotional ramifications of having sex at such a young age) and Wendla so obviously does not makes the scene seem, if you think about it, a little bit like rape. At least, a sort of taking advantage, since if Wendla knew she could get pregnant from having sex with Malchior she probably wouldn’t have done it. And, indeed, in the original Wedekind play Malchior does explicitly rape Wendla, but of course they dialed it down a bit for Broadway audiences. So, what is first a romance fit for a teen chick flick becomes much darker and more tragic, especially after Wendla dies.

What I meant to point out about all this is that Spring Awakening is able to effect an emotional resonance by taking the audience’s expectations based on reasonable indicators of tone and content presented early in the show and completely subverting them. Light comedy and sweet romance are transformed into haunting, angry tragedy when the characters start connecting sex with violence and never look back. It’s an interesting–and effective–narrative strategy that, I think, comes from a narrowing of perspective, like, it’s all masturbation jokes and hot for teacher fantasies until you start examining individual relationships and the dark underbelly of sexual exploitation. I don’t have much to say about it other than I think it’s cool that they’re able to so flawlessly cause that effect, and that they manage to say something really meaningful in the process.

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My Brooklyn weekend

Wow! This was the most inconvenient weekend of my life! The MTA has seriously jumped up to #1 on my Enemies list after the last three days of subway hell. And, ironically, this was the weekend where I had to be in Brooklyn like the whole time. Not that the people who read this blog read it to hear me whine ad nauseum about the New York public transit system, but bear with me, I promise it won’t happen again (for a while).

So, here’s the thing about the subways here. During the week, they run with regularity; trains get a little spotty at night on some lines, but all in all the system is pretty reliable and it runs 24 hours to all but four stations. Sounds pretty good, right? Okay, but on the weekends, everything goes absolutely berserk. And I know this. I’m prepared for it. I expect to get on a 1 train and hear a garbled announcement informing me that it will be going express for four stops or skipping every other station or waiting for five minutes while another train passes. I’ve gotten used to it. But THIS WEEKEND? It was like the entire subway system had spontaneously combusted.

So, Friday was the only day this weekend that I didn’t spend in Brooklyn. My phone was dying, so it was pretty tough to get in touch with people and I didn’t know exactly where I was going, but I ended up at Cooper 35, an Asian pub in the East Village where I had four dollar bay breezes with Katie and Nikki and their work friend Vivian. Later, we went to Phebe’s, a bar near there, and then after that Cambria and I wandered over to the Washington Square area and had chicken strips and French fries before heading home. We also met this guy in a band who asked us to stand outside and watch his stuff while he brought out the rest of his drums or whatever. It was odd.

Saturday, my friend Brigitte and the rest of her friends from Minneapolis came into town and we met up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the Courbet exhibit, which was pretty stupendous I must say. You know what wasn’t stupendous? Forgetting my phone at home and then going home after the museum to get it only to find the 79th and 86th St. subway stations closed. I was not going to walk another 10 blocks to 96th St., so I got on the very crowded and very slow M104 bus. I got home right about the time I was supposed to be at dinner. IN BROOKLYN. So of course I just called and said it would take me forever, but due to the aforementioned MTA meltdown my friends were having a hard time getting around, too, and everyone was late. We ended up going to a very tony restaurant in Williamsburg called My Moon. The bread was good, but I only had a side dish of asparagus because nothing on the menu looked appealing and I was trying to conserve cash. The asparagus was good. Afterwards, we walked to Monkey Town, a restaurant/bar in Williamsburg, for a City Breathing concert. The place was really odd and hard to find. Once we got inside, there was all sorts of goofy shit hanging from the ceiling–I think it was supposed to look sort of jungly–and there was a restaurant and a bar, but it was pretty small. The back room where the concert was was really interesting. It was a square room with huge screens on each wall and against each wall was a couch that spanned the length of the wall and really low tables. The band set up and played in the center. We were sort of squished on the couches despite having made reservations, but it was really the perfect setting for the music; we just sort of leaned back and closed our eyes and let the music wash over us, every once and a while looking at the video projections that were accompanying the playing. City Breathing is simply amazing; go on their MySpace and download their album, then if you’re in the area come to Brooklyn any Wednesday in May at Bar Matchless in Greenpoint.

On Sunday I was supposed to go to brunch at Bubby’s in DUMBO with the MN crew, but I declined via text message as I knew that I would have to get up really early to get there by 11:00, what with me living on the Upper West Side and brunch being in Brooklyn, which is a slog anyway when the subways aren’t on crack. I had gotten home from the show at about 3:00 AM, also. So I slept until noon and then headed down to the Times Square area for the matinee of Spring Awakening, which was amazing. About half of us didn’t read that little bit in the Playbill where it tells you where and when the play takes place, so we were like, “Why are they all German? And what is this, 1894? What’s with the dumpy FLDS-type garb?” Turns out, it was set in a German provincial town in the 1890s! Apparently, the musical (with music by Duncan Sheik, remember him?) is a slight adaptation of a nineteenth century play by German writer Frank Wedekind; back in ol’ Frankie’s day, Spring Awakening, which deals with teenage sexuality and criticizes bourgeois attitudes towards sex, the play was banned a lot. I don’t know how Wedekind would feel about bringing the play into the twenty-first century by adding dancing and musical numbers with such titles as “You’re Fucked”, but I suppose he’d probably be on board. Anyway, although I really loved it, I left with sort of a creepy feeling that I haven’t been quite able to shake. I think it was the fact that, though the play took place in late nineteenth century Germany, the music and a lot of the staging is so contemporary that it sort of threw me off. Also, the play’s ability to create humorous scenes that, over time, take on greater significance and become fairly horrific is pretty unnerving. Awesome, but unnerving. Also, side note, the nudity’s not that bad but there are some brief explicit sex acts so probs you shouldn’t bring your kids.

After a quick jaunt back to my apartment to put on some pants (spring, come back, where have you gone?!), I hopped back on the effed up subway to go BACK TO BROOKLYN IF YOU CAN BELIEVE IT. We went all the way to Midwood (what? yes, that’s what I said too)–that’s the Avenue J stop on the Q, if you’re a New Yorker, although you still might not know where that is, I certainly didn’t–to eat pizza at Di Fara’s. Now, this was supposedly the Best Pizza In New York–they had lots and lots of articles on the wall to prove it, and a plaque from…somebody who gives out awards for good pizza, I don’t know. And the pizza, when we finally got it, was completely delicious. BUT! I got there at 8:00 and I believe we waited until 10:30-ish to eat, a lot of that outside in the cold. Said Brigitte, “Of course it’s the best pizza in New York! By the time you get it, you’re starving!” Also, apparently the bathroom (which you can only get to by crawling under the counter and going in the back) was so disgusting (“Filthiest bathroom I have ever been in,” according to Amy) that everyone who used it practically bathed in Purel after. However, necessity being the mother of invention, the group composed a collaborative pizza poem while waiting, which was then performed various times aloud. Good times!

It was so late by the time we finished eating that we all decided to go home, which sounds lame, but the New York people had work the next day (today!) and the MN people still aren’t quite over their exhaustion from flying out of Minneapolis so GD early on Saturday morning. Boo, jet lag. Anyway, it was a very packed weekend full of Brooklyn, and though I’ll miss Brigitte and the rest of the crew I won’t mind spending next weekend getting a little more sleep and getting a lot less accomplished.

P.S. I’m really struggling to like Brooklyn (my best friend is moving there in less than two weeks and I’m not super excited about it because it’s really effing far from where I live), so if anybody has any reasons for me to like it (“hipster culture” is NOT a good reason) or places in Williamsburg that we might like to experience/explore (again, I’m cautioning against anything that smacks of hipsters), please feel free to leave suggestions in the comments or email me. Yay for Brooklyn?