When it comes to sex, drugs, or rock ’n’ roll, living a life of either excess or repression generally leads to no good. It’s not a coincidence, then, that two shows about characters living at opposite ends of that spectrum share some key plot points: suicide and abortion. But quickly, before you groan and stop reading, know that one, Bachelorette at Studio Theatre, is a comedy, while the other, Spring Awakening at Keegan Theatre, is a hit musical.
You can probably guess which is about excess and which is about repression.
Bachelorette is the summer’s must-see play for D.C. women of a certain age and situation. I’m talking about ladies between the age of 25 and 40 who have attended one too many prenuptial nights out. The friend who joined me to see the play has five (five!) weddings to attend this year, and is pulling bridesmaid duty in two. We came looking for catharsis, and we got it—plus a year’s worth of blowjob jokes and an honest look at just how cruel insecure women can be, more so to themselves than to each other.
Bachelorette isn’t exactly Bridesmaids. At the very least, the play’s gags are rooted in a grimmer reality. Instead of cuddling with golden retriever puppies at the bridal shower, the maid of honor comes clamoring for coke. When the show opens, two 20-something high-school chums are stumbling into a swank Manhattan hotel room. (The authentic-looking sets are courtesy of Debra Booth.) The girls have already done some snorting this evening, and what would go better with the powdery stuff than an (offstage) bathtub full of chilled champagne?
Life hasn’t worked out quite so well for Gena (Laura C. Harris) and Katie (Jessica Love) as it has for the bride-to-be. Becky (Tracy Lynn Olivera) charmed a wealthy attorney while temping at a law firm. She’s a plus-sized girl—two bridesmaids can, and do, fit into her dress—and her ladder-climbing marriage has come as something of a surprise, especially to maid of honor Regan (Dylan Moore), who wants a ring on her finger before her boyfriend finishes med school.
Katie and Gena, on the other hand, have lower standards. “I just want a boyfriend with a job,” opines Katie, who works in retail. Becky opts to sleep with her fiancé the night before the wedding, leaving the trio of single troublemakers to bitch, snort, and tell cock jokes in the honeymoon suite. A litany on the topic of blowjobs ends with this exchange:
(Here I should note that except for a few brave couples on dates, my in-demand bridesmaid friend and I were pretty much the youngest people in the theater. Our laughter was somewhat conspicuous. Think watching a Judd Apatow movie with your parents.)
Despite the girls’ moaning about men, they’re hardly disappointed when two show up and add pot to the dispensary of available substances. Both the banter and situational twists are brilliant in Leslye Headland’s script. For all their interest in weed, casual sex, and the Dave Matthews Band, it turns out that these guys are knights in Doors T-shirts. (A film version of Bachelorette, directed by Headland and starring Kirsten Dunst, opens in theaters this September.) Jeff (Eric Bryant) may not know Regan’s name, but he knows her control-freak type and calls her on it. There’s also a chance that Joe (JD Taylor) may be the guy with a job Katie’s been longing for.
The ending’s no fairy tale, however. Director David Muse sends the entire cast pummeling toward a sobering climax. The situation may be extreme, but ladies, if you have ever bitched about that plus-sized bridesmaid—the one whose size-18 girth meant you had to buy cheap chiffon gowns from Alfred Angelo instead of cute dresses from J. Crew.—you will leave Studio Theatre a changed woman, ready for that next weekend wedding trip. No bitching or hard drugs allowed.
Spring Awakening Book and lyrics by Steven Sater; Music by Duncan Sheik; Based on the play by Frank Wedekind Directed by Mark A. and Susan Marie Rhea; Keegan Theatre at Church Street Theater to July 8
Like Bachelorette, Keegan Theatre’s production of Spring Awakening also has an ideal demographic group: any parent with a teenager who will sit through a musical. The family in front of me included a kid wearing a “Stags Lacrosse” T-shirt who didn’t seem entirely comfortable watching an onstage love scene with mom and dad.
Spring Awakening is more than theatrical sex-ed, but Keegan’s production will be best appreciated by theatergoers who didn’t see the Broadway tour at its Kennedy Center stop or the New York cast that swept the 2007 Tony Awards. When the rock musical about repressed teens living in late 19th-century Germany opened, it starred Lea Michele, before she was an Oscar de la Renta vamptress in Glee, and Jonathan Groff, then fresh off his parents’ Paradise, Pa., horse farm.
The area college students that Keegan recruited also bring convincing innocence to their roles as kids who think babies come from storks and wet dreams are visits from angels. It feels like a high-end university production, and I don’t mean that dismissively. Directors Mark A. and Susan Marie Rhea have done a particularly good job with the blocking and design. A raised palate at the center of the stage functions alternatively as a hayloft and a graveyard, while the second-story platform is well-used to keep the episodic show moving.
Balancing out the vocals and the amateur orchestra and keeping singers and musicians together may be problematic throughout the run. Composer Duncan Sheik (the one-hit wonder who sang “Barely Breathing”) employs some tricky minor-key harmonies, and the onstage orchestra struggled at the start of the performance I attended. But by Act 2, things were coming together. Paul Scanlan was appropriately unhinged as Moritz singing “Don’t Do Sadness,” and the ensemble vocals closed strong with “Those You’ve Known.”
Spring Awakening is based on a 1891 German play of the same name. Even in 1917, that play’s New York premiere was considered pornographic. Steven Sater, who wrote the musical’s book, has the teens speaking in an old-fashioned tongue but singing like contemporary teens. Ever since Keegan announced it had the rights to Spring Awakening, theatergoers in the know had wondered if the local troupe could pull it off. So in answer to that most crucial question about a certain profane anthem: No, they did not fuck up “Totally Fucked.”
They totally rocked it.