By Marilyn Lester
The residents of the fictional town of Spoon River do not go gentle into that good night. Quite the contrary: in death they’re as animated as they were in life, if not more so. In this version of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, called simply, Spoon River, those souls are brought back to life in a sizzling thrill ride that packs quite a punch. The adaptation is by Toronto’s Soulpepper theater, conceived by Soulpepper Artistic Director (and Director), Albert Schultz, and Mike Ross, who composed the stunning music. Spoon River won Canada’s equivalent of the Tony award for best musical and was so hailed by the Toronto Critics Association. It’s a brilliant piece of theater – the kind you might one day look back on and remember as one of the best things you ever saw.
Soulpepper’s production is the perfect storm of elements yielding a theatrical ne plus ultra. Schultz has directed his ensemble cast of 19 with a precision and logic that keeps the action lively and the movement uncluttered. There’s much coming and going on stage, but it’s accomplished with organic ease and fluidity. The cast is a wonderment. All (or nearly so) are multi-instrumentalists who sing well, move well, emote brilliantly and make astounding music. These actors, with their focus and commitment to the work, coupled with extraordinary synergy, quite possibly are other-worldly. Ross’ bluegrass/Celtic rhythms, played on almost every instrument imaginable, from strings to brass, are sheer musical poetry. From the foot stomping, rousing opening and closing numbers the musical ideas in between hit all the right beats.
The source material, Spoon River Anthology, published in 1915, is a collection of 212 epitaphs – free verse poems delivered by the dead themselves, spanning the range of human emotion and the varied circumstances of life. Masters’ anthology was never a reflection of the somberness of death. It is full of life. It has quirks and fancies, is often dark and raw and visceral, lyrical, wise, canny and full of humor – attributes all fully mined by Soulpepper. Many of the poems are cross-referenced, painting an unvarnished, unfiltered picture of the life of a community. The work has been adapted many times: as song cycles, dramatic presentations, photographic exhibitions, a concept album, and even a board game.
The progress from the lobby to one’s seat is immersive. A long dark hallway is lined with photos of the residents of “The Hill,” Spoon River’s graveyard. In a plain pine casket lies the body of a young woman who’s gone to her reward far too soon. Around a corner is another dark passage lined on one side with a scrim and tombstones. Along the way, actors dressed in funerary garb solemnly intone phrases such as “Sorry for your loss” or “Thank you for coming this evening.” Once seated, patrons viewed entering the theater on the other side of the scrim form a funeral procession. At the start of Spoon River, the pine box, now closed, is brought to the stage and a Homily delivered over the recently deceased Birdie Hugh. The dead emerge, slowly, curiously, cautiously, and once alone break into rousing song, based on the opening narration of the anthology, “The Hill.” The first monologue is the story of Ebony Luce. But, like Birdie Hugh, she’s not a character in the original work. Schultz and Ross have added several new epitaphs to suit their purpose. In a comical drunk sequence, for example, Oscar Hummel, ( poem 134) is joined by three other tipplers to sing an uproarious song about “Drink.” Three ladies of ill-repute have been created for Lucius Atherton, (poem 55) the town Lothario.
Karma is experienced by A.D. Blood, (poem 68) a moralist who incidentally has murdered Oscar Hummel, as he laments:
|Why do you let the milliner’s daughter Dora,|
|And the worthless son of Benjamin Pantier|
|Nightly make my grave their unholy pillow?|
George Gray, (poem 64) whose life was crippled by fear, sings about “a boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor,” while Paul McNeely, (poem100) sings sweetly of dear Jane, who cared for him on his deathbed. The epitaph of the rich banker Thomas Rhodes, (poem 104) brought laughter at its opening lines:
|Very well, you liberals,|
|And navigators into realms intellectual,|
|You sailors through heights imaginative…|
He’s followed by the embittered Eugene Carman, (poem 127) who characterizes himself as Rhodes’ “slave.” Thus, in not following Masters’ arrangement linearly, creative groupings are formed; these help pace the production and cleverly allow cross-references to be made.
Two sequences of married couples, alone on stage, spotlighted against boards meant to resemble coffins, paint a picture of unions cursed and happy. Locked in eternity are Benjamin Pantier (poem 14) and Mrs. Pantier, (poem 15) who threw him out in disgust, as well as Tom and Emily, (poem 72) who lived life happily as one. Many other epitaphs from the philosophical to the heart-wrenching are salted throughout, such as the tale of Harry Wilmans, (poem 194) a soldier killed in battle. Affecting songs are set to the epitaphs of the arsonist Silas Dement, (poem 167) “Moonlight,” and the Widow McFarlane, (poem 124) who darkly weaves “The Cloth of Life.” Most astounding is the hard-driving number written for Mrs. Sibley, (poem 114) “The Secret of the Stars,” whose wildly played violin emulates the sound of trains and whose secret is that she lies under a “mound you shall never find.” It’s appropriate that the penultimate epitaph should be Fiddler Jones, (poem 60) a life-loving farmer with no regrets who’d rather make music more than anything else. From this poem to the appearance of the narrator and of Birdie Hugh rising from her grave (in song) Spoon River concludes with “Soul Alive,” sung by Edmund Pollard,( poem 150) who couldn’t drink in enough of life. As the entire cast joins in, Spoon River closes on a rip-roaring, cup-runneth-over, music-making affirmation and celebration of living life fully.
The remarkable cast of Spoon River are; Alana Bridgewater, Oliver Dennis, Raquel Duffy, Hailey Gillis, Stuart Hughes, John Jarvis, Richard Lam, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Jeff Iillico, Diego Matamoros, Michelle Monteith, Miranda Mulholland, Gregory Prest, Jackie Richardson, Mike Ross, Paolo Santalucia, Brendan Wall, Daniel Williston, and Sarah Wilson. Ken MacKenzie designed sets and lighting, Jason Browning designed the sound, and Erika Connor designed evocative costumes that worked amazingly well for the many costume changes required. Robert Harding served as production stage manager.
Spoon River, is playing in repetory with nine other Soulpepper works at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd. Street. For a schedule, please see http://tickets.youngcentre.ca/single/psDetail.aspx?psn=9949
Photos: Cylla von Tiedemann