Teenage sex is in the air.
The subject was all over the media recently when a much-hyped Glee episode called The First Time ended with both a straight and gay couple in bed intent on consummating their sexual awakening. Parent groups were outraged and slammed the popular TV musical comedy for celebrating children having sex.
Tonight, two Winnipeg stages will present the story of a pair of strong-willed teenagers who fall madly, deeply in love despite parental disapproval and see their whirlwind affair end badly with adolescent suicide.
Any Shakesperienced theatre-goer will immediately recognize the famous plot of Romeo + Juliet, which opens tonight at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, but it also describes the story of Spring Awakening, the multi-Tony Award-winning musical about teenage sexuality getting its local première courtesy of Winnipeg Studio Theatre at the nearby RMTC Warehouse.
Lea Michel, whose character Rachel Barry was one of the high school students getting intimate on Glee, was also the original 14-year-old Wendl in Spring Awakening.
"There are so many similarities between the two shows," says Kayla Gordon, director of Spring Awakening. "One is a classic and the other is a very contemporary look at a lot of the same themes, oppressed love. Both are set in different times but are still appropriate for today."
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Spring Awakening is based on Frank Wedekind's oft-banned and scandalous 1891 expressionist drama that was so offensive to Victorian sensibilities it was not staged until 1906.
The explicit story of angst-riddled, sexually confused youngsters in late-19th-century Germany was labelled pornographic by New York City officials, who couldn't block the American debut of Spring Awakening, which lasted one matinee performance. In 2006 the 100-year-old tale was partnered with an edgy alt-rock score by composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist Steven Sater to make a successful Broadway musical, which won eight Tony Awards.
Kayla Gordon grabbed the production rights when they became available for the fledgling Winnipeg Studio Theatre, which has produced such fringe festival hits as Hersteria, Altar Boyz and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Spring Awakening is the troupe's first foray outside the protective cocoon of the fringe brand and into the more competitive regular theatre season.
"I'm drawn to shows with young people," says Gordon, who also directs the independent production. "The pool of talent in this city is incredible."
Spring Awakening revolves around Wendl, a pretty, sheltered 14-year-old girl, and Melchior, the fearless object of her attention, who must deal with their raging hormones without any education from their repressed teachers and parents. The two engage in a love affair with disastrous consequences. Along the way they and their friends deal with masturbation, pregnancy, abortion and homosexuality.
To prepare her young cast for the sexual content, Gordon had them participate in several exercises, including contact improv, in which the performers explored touching and being comfortable with each other. Apparently contact improv puts them in some of the same awkward positions as Spring Awakening.
"It was very important for us to bond because the subject matter is so sensitive," says Winnipeg's Samantha Hill, who plays Wendl. "We explored physical closeness."
She had never worked with Jeremy Walmsley, who is cast as Melchior, but both knew they would have to quickly create trust and boundaries.
"It's never not awkward at first, but we're actors," says Hill, a University of Alberta graduate. "It's not sexy to be making out with someone who is not your partner and everyone is watching. If you are open and available, it will be fine. I'm not Samantha kissing Jeremy, I'm Wendl kissing Melchior."
Both much-sought-after performers agreed that the first kiss is the most embarrassing and unnerving, mostly because neither is sure how far the other will go.
"I like to see it as a real relationship," says Walmsley, originally from Neepawa. "The first kiss is always awkward."
Although she is playing a schoolchild of 14, the 24-year-old Hill had no trouble getting into the head of Wendl, who is on the cusp of womanhood but kept in ignorance of what is happening to her.
"Fourteen is not as far away from 24 as I would like," says Hill, who has been cast in August: Osage County at RMTC Warehouse next March. "Sometimes I still feel like an adolescent trying to find my way. I have enough perspective on what I was going through at 14 to relate with it."
Walmsley, 22, was equally familiar with the headspace.
"It was just like it was yesterday, actually," says Walmsley, who is reprising his role in Altar Boyz for Prairie Theatre Exchange in February and appearing in WJT's Angels in America: Millennium Approaches in March.
The young people who are depicted in Spring Awakening wouldn't have been old enough to see the stage version, which in Winnipeg comes with a mature-subject-matter warning and a suitability for patrons 16 and up. The two actors say the risqué nature of the story, or the language in a song like Totally F ed, may upset some patrons but argue there is nothing tasteless or gratuitous about the material.
"Nowadays, kids are having sex at 14," says Hill. "The reason why is the lack of education, the lack of support. Part of the reason Frank Wedekind wrote it was as a warning to parents not to raise your kids in ignorance."
Walmsley promises: "Spring Awakening is going to raise some questions at the supper table."
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Romeo and Juliet is an old tale of young love for all time.
Over 400 years after it was written by William Shakespeare (or someone else), the tragedy about a young couple swept away by passion and desire in 15th-century Verona says something to each and every generation.
The National Ballet of Canada just premièred a new version of Romeo and Juliet to celebrate its 60th anniversary. Earlier this year, the greatest love story ever told starred garden gnomes in the big-screen comedy Gnomeo and Juliet. Even country diva Taylor Swift, in her song Love Story, refers to herself as Juliet and the boyfriend no one wants her to be with as Romeo.
RMTC is also reviving Romeo and Juliet with an updated logo featuring Middle Eastern symbols to reflect the new setting of present-day Jerusalem. RMTC artistic director Steven Schipper has re-envisioned the tragedy with Jewish Montagues and Muslim Capulets for a couple of reasons.
"Now because RMTC is long overdue a R&J, and re-envisioned because it is a too-familiar play," says Schipper. "This particular re-envisoning was conceived as a means to experience R&J as though for the first time, to hear and see it with new resonances and fresh meaning. Its prism reflects the timeless hope that, after the tragedy, we as human beings are capable of reconciliation and peace."
It was Canada's centennial year, 1967, when the city's flagship theatre last staged the play about forbidden love and the desires of youth. This modern-dress production features Marc Bendavid and Pam Patel, both Ontario-based 20-something actors making their debuts as the iconic star-crossed lovers.
"Once you get into it, it feels like Romeo and Juliet is worthy of its reputation," says Toronto's Bendavid. "It's beautifully romantic."
Patel, a Kitchener-based actress making her first RMTC appearance, has thought the same thing.
"There are definitely moments I get offstage and think I love doing that scene because of its romance."
What has struck the pair is how little time Romeo and Juliet spend together onstage. They meet briefly at a party, come together again for the famous balcony scene, get married and the following morning he must flee the city before sunrise or be killed.
"I have fewer scenes with her than anyone else, really," says Bendavid, who, like Patel, refused to divulge his age. "The great thing is that the playwright doesn't allow you to see what you want to see: them together."
Schipper's relocation of the play is a bid to attach added relevance to the story of a couple of teenagers from feuding families. His even-handed vision was guided by the opening line, "Two households, both alike in dignity."
"It is a traditional telling in a contemporary setting," says Bendavid, a graduate of the National Theatre School in Montreal. "It is set in modern Jerusalem but the dynamics of the play are the same. I find that re-setting it affects its power very little. You sort of forget about it quite quickly. I don't think that specification of religious background does anything but give us another way of informing our view of the story."
The current question of who wrote Romeo and Juliet is a non-starter with the two actors. The authorship question has been revived with the recent release of the movie Anonymous, which robustly proposed that the works of the Bard were in fact penned by Elizabethan courtier Edward de Vere. Both actors believe the important thing is simply to enjoy the work.
"It was a good movie but I didn't buy it," says Patel, a trained opera singer of East Indian descent who once aspired to Bollywood. "In the end, what matters is the work itself. The play is out there, brilliant, timeless. I want to believe Shakespeare wrote it."
Winnipeg Studio Theatre
Opens Thursday, to Dec. 4 at RMTC Warehouse
Tickets: $34.13, $15 for students at 942-6537
Romeo + Juliet
Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre
Opens Thursday, to Dec. 17
Tickets: $28-$78 at 942-6537