Sunday, July 18, 2010

#CharacterStudy: SPRING AWAKENING'S Wendla Bergmann




Character Study
Capturing Spring Awakening's ingenue
So, it’s that time of year (yet again), when I start to feel that pang in my chest which longs to see Spring Awakening again. This feeling tends to rush over me several times, as you readers well know. It has also occurred to me that I haven’t done a theatre-related post in a long while, so I thought I’d try something interesting that I’ve been meaning to do for a while now, which is basically to further analyze my favorite characters from a favorite show and see how well a certain production’s visual/design choices helped to reflect/enhance said character. In addition, I’ve also been dying to include my own modern spin on the character — sort of my own “Directorial Approach.”
This summer, I want to take a closer, more in-depth look at the principal quartet of characters in SpringWendla BergmannIlse NeumannMoritz Steifel Melchior Gabor. I guess you could say that it’s my way of satiating my hunger for this show (which is to kick off the 3rd leg of its National Tour this September, by the by) while also getting my critical fix, as well. To start things off, we’ll be looking at Wendla in this post.
Wendla Bergmann is the ingenue of the play, whose queries on the origins of babies operate as the catalyst from which the key events (and recurring theme) of the entire playspark and are set in motion. 

Wikipedia states:
The ingénue (pronounced /ˈænʒənuː/) is a stock character in literaturefilm, and arole type in the theatre; generally a girl or a young woman who is endearingly innocent and wholesome.
Typically, the ingenue is beautiful, gentle, sweet, virginal, and often naïve, in mental or emotional danger, or even physical danger, usually a target of The Cad; whom she may have mistaken for The Hero. Due to lack of independence, the ingenue usually lives with her father or a father figure (although in some rare cases she lives with a mother figure). The vamp is often a foil for the ingenue (or the damsel in distress, for that matter).
This perfectly suits the way Wendla is portrayed in the 2006 Steven Sater/Duncan Sheik/Michael Mayer-helmed production, played in an almost too perfect innocence byGlee‘s Lea Michele. She is naive, yet starts to question the things her mother tells her, much of which is misinformation. Because of this, she looks for answers elsewhere and eventually finds them in none other than childhood friend, Melchior Gabor, in more ways than even she could have anticipated.

Top, left: unknown; Top, right: Daughter of Alexander Cassatt by Mary Cassatt. Bottom, left to right: Actress Zooey Deschanel in an Ellen von Unwerth photo shoot for the now defunct Jane Magazine.
The images above are a piece of what my mind’s eyelooks to for inspiration for my Wendla. Girls in dresses picking flowers, with ringlets and bows in their hair. Images in sepia. Everytime I see vintage portraits of girls in this era, they always seem to have a sad mystery about them, despite the strict propriety their society expects of them. This, to me, is quintessentially Wendla Bergmann.


While I know no one can ever replace Lea Michele, as she’d been the one to originate the role, I feel like we could go further with the casting of Wendla (McG, are you listening?) by going with a more refined, yet fresh-faced look. Emily Browning was the first to come to mind, as she’s been a personal favorite of mine since having seen her in 2004′sA Series of Unfortunate Events. I feel like she has the right look for that era and the ability to evoke both strength and vulnerability, as the aforementioned film certainly proved. She has a youthful, innocent look but you can also sense that despite her naïvité, she wants to independently think for herself, and I feel Emily can achieve this.


Susan Hilferty‘s choice of white for Wendla’s opening costume in the Broadway production, I always felt, was such a brilliant yet simple choice: the color perfectly reflected the character’s pure ideas about the world, as well as her physical purity. This is only delightfully enhanced by Michele’s voice, ringing out into the theatre as she opens the show with “Mama Who Bore Me.”

During this opening song, the character is depicted onstage in her undergarments (a simple white romper, now interestingly a current fashion staple for any modern girl), staring out at the audience as if at a mirror, running along the sides of her ever-changing body with her hands before finally pulling them over her eyes and enacting Bill T. Jones’ haunting choreography. She then slips on her dress, which had been draped over the back of the chair, and finishes the song.

Immediately following, Wendla’s mother enters and scolds the child for wearing the dress, complaining that she’s outgrown it, bothliterally and figuratively (to which Wendla replies: “Please let me wear this one, Mama…it makes me feel like a faerie queen”). The next few times we see her, from “My Junk” onwards, Wendla is seen now wearing a longer, more traditional blue Victorian-styledress. This obviously symbolizes the control not only her mother has upon her, but that of societal expectations, as well. However, she reverts back to her “faerie queen” dress when she meets Melchior again in the woods during the Beating Scene, and once again in the show’s climax (pun fully intended) Hayloft Scene. Wendla’s journey with the dress goes from a place of purity to that of tainted innocence, as she loses her virginity with Melchior, becoming a “Guilty One.”

Over the years during its run, the Spring Awakening musical has pretty much become synonymous with her faerie dress, affectionately known as the Wendla Dress by fans, and many have sought to live out their ingenue-playing fantasies by getting a dress of their own to wear when re-enacting MWBM in their rooms (myself included)! My interpretation would then use this as a starting point for inspiration. A lot of those who aspire to play Wendlagot their dresses from stores like Forever 21, Target and various online carriers (as is the case with mine), so I’d definitely do Victorian babydoll with a modern twist.

Figure 3 depicts a young Victorian girl whose look I’d imagine would be a lot like Wendla’s. Not much has changed here, except for a few slight modern touches. In the show, she wears cross-strapped black ballet slipper-like shoes (like those seen in Figure 1), as well as the infamousfaerie dress, shown here in Figure 2. We still want to see her in something she can move in, and yet something that still holds true to what a girl her age might have worn in 19th century Bavaria. The oversize bow headband (Figure 4), to me, helps further define her mother’s wishes for her daughter to not grow up too fast. A bow always evokes to me a tinge of nostalgia for youth, and this is something not just her mother, but all the Adult Men and Women in the show are still trying to hold onto for their children. The bow being oversized is more of an aesthetic, stylistic choice; though, in the late 1890s to early oversize ribbons were commonly used as hairpieces. In my version, she couldeither wear the headband, or atied ribbon, so long as the look of youth and innocence is there. As forFigure 5, my Wendla of the 20th Century would definitely use NARS’ blusher in Orgasm, of course — this is, after all, what Spring Awakening is about.

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