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STAGE REVIEW

Teen discovery still resonates

From left: Rebecca Stevens, Talia Weingarten, and Amelia Estrada in Zeitgeist Stage Company's ''Spring Awakening.'' From left: Rebecca Stevens, Talia Weingarten, and Amelia Estrada in Zeitgeist Stage Company's ''Spring Awakening.'' (Richard Hall/Silverline Image)
By Terry Byrne
Globe Correspondent / April 23, 2009
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Rape, suicide , masturbation, homosexuality: No wonder "Spring Awakening" created such controversy when playwright Frank Wedekind tried to mount it in the 1890s. But the current Zeitgeist Stage Company production at the Boston Center for the Arts revels in its fascinating teen characters, maintaining an elegant balance between the shock factor inherent in the issues they confront and the simple tale Wedekind is telling.

Set in the German countryside, the play is a kind of snapshot of a group of teens and the angst they face at a particular moment in their lives. Reinhold A. Mahler's translation is only occasionally awkward ("your chastity enhances my every excess," one young man says), and for the most part, the discoveries the teens make are fresh and familiar. Seeing the original play also provides insight into the Tony Award-winning musical version, which opens at the Colonial Theatre next week.

Director and set designer David J. Miller has created a beautiful woodsy atmosphere, complete with saplings dotting the grassy landscape, that offers a sense of wide-open spaces, no mean feat in the intimate confines of the BCA's Plaza Black Box theater. The idea of an expansive world creates an excellent contrast with the repressive society the teens are trying to navigate.

The play opens with school chums discussing their upcoming examinations and the pressure to succeed. Someone must fail, they say, because there simply aren't enough places at the next level. Moritz (Carlos Rojas) is feeling pressured, as his family has sacrificed so much to keep him in school. Between academic fears and his growing awareness of his own sexuality, he becomes overwhelmed with shame and suicidal thoughts. His friend Melchior (Paul McCallion) offers to write down how sex works so that Moritz can read about it in private.

We also meet Wendla (Rebecca Stevens), a 14-year-old girl whose mother is too embarrassed to explain where babies come from, despite Wendla's insistence. She listens to the woes of her friend Martha (Talia Weingarten), who is regularly beaten by her parents, and in her effort to empathize, convinces her friend Melchior to beat her in an emotional moment that gets completely out of hand. There are also two other boys who discover their attraction for each other.

In the midst of all the teen discoveries, the parents are appropriately oblivious, and the scene in which several teachers discuss the fate of one student while arguing over the opening of a window is one of the funniest moments in the play.

The irony of the drama is that Melchior, the one young man who seems comfortable with discussions of sex ("Momma will make us lemonade and we'll have a relaxed conversation about reproduction," he says to Moritz), is the one who gets in the most trouble.

The teen actors portray their characters without affectation, despite the heavy emotional turmoil, and Rojas is particularly wonderful as the boy who succumbs to the pressure. Although the play's ending is a bit surreal, the fundamental challenges of adolescence come through in all their torment and triumph.

SPRING AWAKENING Play by Frank Wedekind, translated by Reinhold A. Mahler, adapted by David J. Miller

Directed by: Miller. Lights, Chris Fournier. Costumes, Krystel Bly. Sets, Miller. Presented by Zeitgeist Stage Company.

At: Boston Center for the Arts' Plaza Black Box theater, through May 9. Tickets: $25-$35. 617-933-8600, www.boston theatrescene.com.