Monday, March 23, 2015

Theatre: Spoon River

It was a weird coincidence that our last two theatre excursions were each inspired by early 1900s poetry, using lines of verse verbatim from their source poems. The musical Wild Party was based on a 1924 book poem of the same name, while the music-infused play Spoon River was developed around the 1915 book of poetry called "Spoon River Anthology" by Edgar Lee Masters. 

Spoon River Anthology was written as a series of short, rhyme-less poems of approximately 10-20 lines, each one representing the epitaph of a past resident from the fictional town of Spoon River.  Masters based many of the characters on people that he either knew or had heard of, from his two home towns of Petersburg and Lewistown, Illinois.  Each poem was named after the deceased, and was written in the first person, as if spoken from the grave directly by that person.  Occasionally, several epitaphs may be linked by previous living relationships, such as husband and wife, mother and son, master and servant, so that you don't get the whole story until you hear them both.  The verses could describe how a person died (murder, suicide, war, illness, accident), or the circumstances of his life, or might just make some general observation about living in rural, small town America at the turn of the 20th Century.  Some anecdotes were humorous while others were heartbreaking .

"Judge Somers - How does it happen .. that I who was the most erudite of lawyers ... lie here unmarked, forgotten, while Chase Henry, the town drunkard has a marble block ..

"Amanda Barker - Henry got me with child, knowing that I could not bring forth life without losing my own ..."¹

The performance of this original Soulpepper production of Spoon River begins the minute you enter the darkened pathway of the Young Theatre.  First you walk by a wall lined with black and white period photos, presumably of the characters who will present their stories.  Next you come across a sign declaring that the "Funeral of Bertie Hume" is about to take place, and just before entering the seating area, you see a wood casket with the actress playing Bertie lying peacefully inside it.  Tombstones line the path, while pallbearers dressed in black topcoats guide your way.  Once seated, as you look upon the semi-transparent backdrop of the tree-lined stage with a brightly lit full moon, you see shadowy images of other audience members walking through the forest.  The illusion is amazing since they look like unearthly spirits floating by.

Spoon River selects a subset of the over 200 epitaphs from the anthology and delivers them through speech or song and dance, as a series of declarations from the ghostly occupants of a cemetery atop a hill, who rise to greet the newly deceased Bertie Hume after her outdoor funeral.  This is not a musical in the traditional sense, but rather a play with musical numbers interspersed.  The songs feature foot-stomping bluegrass and hillbilly music, with a wide range of instruments including the banjo, violin, ukelele, acoustic guitars, bass, piano, autoharp, trombone, trumpet and drums.

The first song corresponds to the first introductory poem in the anthology, setting to music the words of "The Hill": "We are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charles; The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter .. We are Ella, Kate, Mag, Lizzie and Edith; The tender heart, the simple soul, the loud, the proud, the happy one ... all, are asleep on the hill ..."¹

Some of the vignettes use innovative staging techniques that are so simple and yet so visually powerful.  One comic series of theme-linked poems feature spousal pairs standing in front of wooden planks that represent the backs of their coffins.  Spotlights focus on the husband and wife as they each tell their side of their joint story.  When they are done, there is a fade to black and when the lights go on again, a new pair is standing there.

You have Tom Merritt who was shot to death by his wife's 19-year-old lover who "aimed and fired at my heart"¹, while Mrs. Merritt (note that she doesn't even warrant a first name!) was sentenced to 30 years and died in prison–"And the iron gates of Joliet swing as the gray and silent trusties carried me out in a coffin.

Ollie McGee who moans that "my husband .. robbed my youth and my beauty ... in death .. I am avenged"¹, followed by Fletcher McGee lamenting "she died and haunted me and hunted me for life."¹  Throughout this counterpoint, Ollie wears a ghostly white sheet over her head, which she occasionally lifts to display a ghoulish grin.

And then there is the marital discord between Benjamin Pantier and Mrs. Benjamin Pantier (again no first name!).  She "drove him away from home to live with his dog in a dingy room back of his office"¹.  He stands there cradling his beloved dog Nig in a swaddling cloth like a baby, describing Nig as his "constant companion, solace and friend .. partner, bed-fellow; comrade in drink."¹

Another example of inspired staging involves the creative uses of a wooden ladder.  In a scene about arsonist Silas Dement, the ladder is propped up against another actor as Silas climbs upward to gain access to the place he wants to torch.  Next the ladder is placed on the ground and a group of firemen "climb" it to reach the fire.  In another scene, the ladder is placed in front of a convict and the rungs of the ladder become his prison bars.

The best use of the ladder occurs during the eerie and hauntingly beautiful song sung by Mrs. Sibbley, who commits suicide by stepping in front of a train.  As she stands on the "railway tracks", she sings of "My secret: under a mound that you shall never find".¹  The mood and tension is ratcheted by the lighting and sound effects of the oncoming locomotive.  At the point of impact, which corresponds to the crescendo of her aria, red rose petals fall from the ceiling, symbolizing the splatter of her blood.  The entire scene was breathtaking!

One of the funniest epitaphs is by A.D.Blood, strict and moralistic past mayor who complains "If you think my work is good, who closed saloons and stopped all playing at cards, why do you let the miller's daughter and worthless son of Benjamin Pantier nightly make my grave their unholy pillow?"¹  Edgar Masters had a great sense of humour!

Spoon River begins with Bertie Hume's covered coffin being carried in by the pallbearers and set onto the stage. At first you wonder if the body you saw while entering the theatre is actually in the coffin.  But as the show goes on without her appearance, while the various characters dance, stomp, kick and play drums on the coffin, you think she can't possibly be in there.  But then at the end of the show, the coffin finally opens and Bertie emerges (probably from a trap door leading under the stage) to sing her song about needing to live life to the fullest while you can.

This was a very unique but entertaining show, taken from a very unusual and interesting set of poems.  After watching so much theatre, it is wonderful to stumble on something truly different and innovative.

¹ Quotes from Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters

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