by Lynn on November 6, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts

Based on Spoon River Anthology Edgar Lee Masters.
Adapted by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz
Directed by Albert Schultz
Composed by Mike Ross
Musical Arranger and musical director, Mike Ross
Set and Lighting designed by Ken MacKenzie
Costumes designed by Erika Connor
Sound by Jason Browning
Starring: Frank Cox-O’Connell
Mikaela Davies
Oliver Dennis
Raquel Duffy
Peter Fernandes
Katherine Gauthier
Hailey Gillis
Gordon Hecht
Stuart Hughes
Richard Lam
Anthony MacMahon
Diego Matamoros
Miranda Mulholland
Oyin Oladijo
Colin Palangio
Nancy Palk
Gregory Prest
Mike Ross
Brendan Wall

A rousing production with toe-tapping music that is strangely at odds with the dark nature of the poems.

The Story. Each of the more than 60 poems in the evening is a story in itself. They tell of the loves, disappointments, unhappy marriages, jealousies; infidelities; rumour mongering of the town; the ruination of a reputation because of an early indiscretion; the effects of demon drink; and in a few cases, the joy and celebration of life.

The Production. We are at Bertie Hume’s funeral. We don’t enter the theatre in the regular way. Instead we are directed by funeral staff dressed in black to walk down a back stage corridor, fitted out to seem like a hallway in a house. Framed faded photos line the walls. At the end of the corridor, in an alcove, is an open casket containing the guest of honour. Ms Bertie Hume wears a nice dress. She looks peaceful from the fleeting glance I give her.

Next we walk through a cemetery, complete with ghost white headstones; then down some stairs and into the dimly lit theatre with a sign on every seat indicating “Family”, “Visitor” or “Passer-by.” I thought it a nice touch that many people who walked by offered me condolences for my loss.

When we are all settled and the lights go down further, the funeral procession moves through the cemetery, their way lit by lamplight. We see the procession’s progress on the other side of a scrim on which is a huge, imposing black tree with branches. It’s as if the branches spread out protectively over the final resting place of all the people who will come to life to tell us their stories.

We learn that Bertie Hume loved life. We are told to use her philosophy and grab at life as much as we can before it’s over. Then the stage becomes alive with the spirits who have passed on, and they sing the rousing, foot-stomping, intoxicating song, “The Hill.” I think to myself that this show is about heart-bursting life and all its raucous joy. Interestingly, Mike Ross’s music, melodic, vivid and lively suggests that, but Edgar Lee Masters’s poems suggest otherwise. The McGees—Ollie McGee played by the blazing Rachel Duffy and Fletcher McGee played by the equally impressive Brendan Wall, sing individually of their long marriage in which they hated each other for every second of it. He took her youth, made her old and angry and then she died. He accuses her of draining his life as well and haunting him in death. The music is throbbing and intoxicating. You can’t help tapping your foot.

Stuart Hughes is touching and moving as he sings of “George Gray” a man afraid of life who shrank from it and learned too late to grab at life. Nancy Palk is deeply affecting as she tells us of “Nancy Knapp” and how she and her husband succumbed to rumour and ill-will, as they saw their farm and fortunes fail, driving her mad.

The cast of 19 are hugely accomplished in illuminating the world of each poem/song with subtlety, nuance, a leer here, a smile there, a grimace, a stare. They also all play an instrument or three supplying the music. Through it all is Mike Ross, musician, actor, musical director, watchful, supportive immersed in melody, his eye on his flock.

Towards the end we hear from Bertie Hume (“Bertie Hume”), the guest of honour. As Bertie, Hailie Gillis rises out of her casket and sings of the glories of life. Her face is bright, eager, embracing. We get a sense of a young woman gone before her time. Fiddler Jones (“Fiddler Jones”) (Oliver Dennis) follows her with his own aged perspective of the joys of living, urging us to grab at life and hold on. It all ends with the same raucous, foot stamping rendition of “The Hill.”

Director Albert Schultz keeps the large cast moving efficiently, adding his particular directorial touches to each poem.

Comment. Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology contains more than 200 poems recounting lives, disappointments, loss and loves of people resembling people he knew growing up in his small Midwestern town. The poems are vivid in depicting the quirks and personalities of all those people.

Mike Ross and Albert Schultz culled about 60 of the poems from two editions of Masters’s masterpiece for the production; collaborated on an adaptation while Mike Ross also composed music for every poem in the show. It’s a huge accomplishment, so kudos to Soulpepper and artistic director, Albert Schultz for bringing it off and Mike Ross for the herculean job of setting all the poems used to music.

It’s an observation, not a criticism that Ross’s compelling music is more uplifting than the poems suggest. The cast add their own humor to each poem which also lightens the mood. Perhaps taken on their own, it would be different. I do wish, though, that the program was able to identify each actor with the characters they played. As it is, there is just a list of the talented cast.

There is a poem/song entitled “Bertie Hume” that is in the list of works covered in Soulpepper’s Spoon River Anthology, but there is no such poem in Masters’s work. A mystery. It was solved by Mike Ross who wrote that there is a poem called “Bertram Hume” about a man who celebrated life, but Ross thought it better expressed a woman’s sensibilities so he changed the gender and the name to better reflect that. I just love that sensitive thought. The whole enterprise if full of that kind of care.

Produced by Soulpepper Theatre Company

Opened: November 3, 2014
Closes: Nov. 15, 2014
Cast: 19; 12 men, 7 women
Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes.

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