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Chris Standart plays the sadistic Tinker in Torn Space's production of Sarah Kane's "Cleansed."

German playwright Frank Wedekind wrote his first full-length script, Frühlings Erwachen or Spring Awakening, in 1891. He would not see the play produced in Germany for another 15 years, and even then it was heavily censored. Wedekind, who is best known for the Lulu plays, had a talent to shock, but there is much more to the work than that. For over a century, Wedekind has proven to be fertile source material for scholars and avant-garde artists.

Avant-garde theater of every era typically pushes the limits of naturalism and conventional theatrical structure in search of a greater truth. This week, in a preview article for the current Broadway production of Spring Awakening, Patricia Cohen of the New York Times commented that Wedekind used “stylized dialogue, fragmented sentences, episodic storytelling and bizarre scenarios to capture an interior world of feeling and fantasy.”

Interestingly, I saw this production, which reworks Wedekind’s play as a musical, on the same weekend as seeing the Torn Space production of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed. Seeing the plays back to back provided a fortuitous juxtaposition.

Like Wedekind, Kane found herself at the center of a remarkable theatrical controversy during her lifetime, when the late Jack Tinker of London’s Daily Mail called her first play, Blasted, “This disgusting feast of filth.” So horrified were some critics that there was a call for government funding to be yanked from the Royal Court. Stephen Daldry, the artistic director at that theater, reported getting one press call a minute for the next two weeks.

This was my own first awareness of Sarah Kane, as Daldry was, in those days, the lover of my best friend from college. Stephen was in New York when the review hit and immediately flew home to do damage control, appearing on television to defend the play.

I recall that in my own Buffalonian way, I had difficulty quite believing that this event was actually rocking the theater world as strongly as it was, because it was happening to people close to me. But the Sarah Kane controversy was undeniably international news. The threat to the Royal Court, which had ironically established its reputation as an incubator for savage, groundbreaking work with such plays as Look Back in Anger in 1956 and Edward Bond’s 1965 play, Saved, in which a group of teens stone a baby in a carriage to death, was very real. The institution would survive the Blasted controversy and Sarah Kane would live just long enough to see a critical reappraisal, as each successive work was more enthusiastically received. Michael Billington of the Guardian would actually admit that he had made an “idiot” of himself in not recognizing the emergence of a major new theatrical voice in Kane. Sadly, Kane herself, who was prone to debilitating bouts of depression, committed suicide in 1999.

Torn Space, with its enthusiasm for the savage, the disturbing and the avant-garde, from Quills to Madame Edwarda…, is truly the only established theater company in Buffalo that could take on Cleansed. In this play, Tinker, a sadistic doctor or guard (named in honour of critic Jack Tinker) runs a prison-like institution where he abuses the inmates for his own amusement. Kane explores the themes of love and sadism as she subjects the characters in four interconnected plots to the most hideous atrocities.

In the first plot, Grace, played by Kara Mckenney, comes to the asylum in search of her brother Graham, played by Ryan O’Byrne, who has already been murdered by Tinker with a drug overdose. Tinker is played by Chris Standart with chilling reserve and superiority. Gradually, Grace becomes more and more like the brother she always resembled, first wearing his clothes, interacting with his ghost, and finally, after receiving a penis transplant, by taking his name.

The second plot follows the relationship of two imprisoned male lovers, Carl and Rod. Carl, played by Brian Butera, vows to love Rod eternally and never to betray him, but crumbles when tortured by Tinker. Rod, played by Matthew Crehan Higgins, is unable to make any such promise, but nonetheless sacrifices his life for Carl.

In the third plot, a boy named Robin falls in love with Grace, but kills himself after she teaches him to read and to count, finally knowing enough to understand his predicament. Andrew Liegl plays Robin with palpable vulnerability.

The final plot follows Tinker’s infatuation with an exotic dancer. He lures the woman, played by Becky Globus, into his confidence and then abandons her.

The stories are related in a hallucinogenic style wherein delusion and reality are intertwined. The piece is both sexually explicit and brutal; we witness the humiliation of characters, the removal of a tongue, the hacking off of body parts and so forth. Director Dan Shanahan and his fellow design team members, Melissa Meola and Daniel Toner, accomplish Kane’s hallucinatory nightmare at the the Adam Mickiewicz Dramatic Circle & Library with multi-focus staging and the use of such low-tech gadgetry as a bubble machine and a confetti gun. The rough, minimalist setting—a cage, several platforms, a slide and a kind of jungle gym—contribute to the gritty rawness of the proceedings. The actors are all up to the task, with Standart and Mckenney very strong in the leads and the entire supporting cast uniformly good as well. With this play, Torn Space gives Buffalo a taste of the provocative themes and images of British “in-yer-face” theater by one of its leading early practitioners.

Buffalo native Christine Estabrook plays all the adult women in the current Broadway production of "Spring Awakening."

Meanwhile, on Broadway, Spring Awakening also has a Buffalo connection as Christine Estabrook, best known for her role on the first season of television’s Desperate Housewives, plays all the adult women. In addition, Buffalo’s Brian Charles Johnson makes an impressive Broadway debut in the show, playing Otto, one of the schoolboys, and understudying Moritz, one of the major featured roles. Both are remarkable, as is the entire production, directed by Michael Mayer with choreography by Bill T. Jones. Duncan Sheik has provided a very fine score in the British rock style with lyrics and book adapted from Wedekind by Steven Sater. The staging makes use of such wonderfully anachronistic electronic technology as handheld microphones and a sky filled with electric lights.

Buffalo's Brian Charles Johnson makes his Broadway debut in "Spring Awakening."

The play, which examines the impact of 19th-century sexual repressiveness through the interrelated stories of middle-class teenagers in a small German town, is marvelous. Parallels to Sarah Kane are surprisingly abundant. If songs like “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally Fucked” weren’t telling enough, it is interesting to note that what Patricia Cohen said of Wedekind could also be said of Kane, that she used “stylized dialogue, fragmented sentences, episodic storytelling and bizarre scenarios to capture an interior world of feeling and fantasy.” In Spring Awakening, a high-school-age boy named Melchior, played by Jonathan Groff, is a gifted student and smart enough to doubt the authority of his teachers. He explores his own thoughts and sexual feelings with remarkably modern assurance. Among his contemporaries, however, we see sexual ignorance, confusion and torment. His friend Moritz cannot sleep or focus on his studies because of guilt over his insistent sexual thoughts. We meet a girl who cannot navigate her father’s physical and sexual abuse. The consequences of repression include the death of Melchior’s girlfriend during an abortion, Moritz’s suicide and Melchior’s imprisonment. Comic relief comes through episodes in which one male couple finds homosexual love, and in Wedekind’s famous masturbation scene wherein a boy manages to climax, despite his suspicious father, by reading Shakespeare while arousing himself. It’s all very “in-yer-face.”

On Sunday night, after two curtain calls, the audience refused to leave and continued to applaud for several minutes, prompting calls to the stage manager. Finally, the cast, many already half out of costume, emerged back on stage to be greeted by an explosive ovation. The show, which had begun Broadway previews on Thursday, is beginning to look like a hit.