Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Singing with the Dead: Soulpepper's Spoon River Revival

Jackie Richardson (centre) and members of the cast of Soulpepper's Spoon River. (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

A folk musical resurrecting the dead through song, Spoon River has itself come back to life. Since the beginning of the month, and continuing through April 21, Soulpepper has been giving the winner of the 2015 Dora Award for Outstanding New Musical a series of rousing performances at Toronto's Young Theatre for the Performing Arts, warming hearts all over again. Based on Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology of poems first published in 1914 and adapted for the stage by company artistic director Albert Schultz and composer Mike Ross, this revitalized production of Spoon River has boundless stores of energy in it still.

After the Toronto run this same production, with its cast of 19 strong actor/singer/musicians, will make its New York debut as part of The Soulpepper on 42nd Street Festival taking place, off-Broadway, in July. You don't need a crystal ball to predict how that will go. Macabre the subject matter might be but oh how sweet is this deliverance from the grave. Despite its graveyard setting, Spoon River is so joyously life-affirming that the spirit soars along with the angelic high notes in Ross's strummable, hummable original score. 

The hallelujah rises from Masters's celebrated collection of free-verse poems describing in vivid emotional detail the inhabitants of small town Spoon River – on the outskirts of Chicago – close to a hundred years ago. The tellers of the assorted tales have all passed away. A motley crew of ghosts –young and old, good and bad – they haunt a cemetery with stories of who they were before they became mere names carved on a headstone. In Soulpepper's innovative adaptation, framed like a funeral and structured into an alternating series of spoken and sung vignettes, the characters tell an unseen passerby (a.k.a. the audience) about the moment death came to them, often unexpectedly. Their individual narratives are funny, poignant, irreverent and only occasionally tragic, even though most of the subject matter is downbeat. No matter if their demise was a result of an illness, a murder, a hanging, a suicide, "a shameless child birth," or a war, all in the cemetery share a view that death is not a finality, but a transference to the other side. "All are sleeping on the hill," chants this ghoulish but glorious chorus in unison, accepting without reservation their membership in this new community of the all-remembering dead. Dreams, as one in the group points out, continue to hover over them, like clouds in the sky. When the lights go down, Ken MacKenzie's bare-bones set and lighting design resembles a constellation, its star-like radiance illuminating the dark.

A scene from Soulpepper's production of Spoon River. (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

But Spoon River is not nearly as sentimental as this description of events might make it sound. Life is not a bowl of cherries but a pile of chewed-over stones. The play gets under the skin of individual characters to explore the flesh-and-blood reality behind an epitaph. The monologues, delivered with gusto and also at times through a veil of sadness, are like verbal snapshots of a given time and place with some people cast in shadow, others looming bright and naive in the narrative viewfinder. The topics are mundane more than maudlin, touching on drunkenness, infidelity, jealousy, spite, the class struggle and other inglorious aspects of the human condition. Death being the great leveller, the script treats vice and virtue equally. Confessions of terrible crimes and portraits of forever love are given the same spotlighted treatment, the same dramatic weight. There is no judgement here, only a trail of good stories. Directly addressed, the listener sits engaged and enthralled, commiserating with the man lamenting how his wife took his "strength by minutes" and "his life by hours" and with the woman who faced an oncoming train so as to take a secret to her grave. Pity turns effortlessly to laughter at the sight of the town drunk clicking spoons and heels in a happy dance, and when a notorious Casanova, eventually emasculated by old age, manages to get some beyond-the-corpse thrills when listening in on the conversation of women he once seduced. Like him, they are now deceased. 

Sex runs ironically through a play in which procreation is ultimately a dead end. Several characters speak of the burden of the marital bed while others, not married, hint darkly at sexual abuse and the private torture of wanting to indulge in sex forbidden by the social conventions of the day. One woman recalls how she could have been the next Georges Sand had she not married and had eight children with the local druggist. She had artistic ambitions but died with them unfulfilled. Others have children out of wedlock, like the poor mother who gives up her child to be raised by another. When he becomes a prominent member of society she can only watch from the sidelines and never tell him how proud she is that he is her son. Copulation is avoided at all cost by the wife whose husband disgusts her. She cannot will herself to make love to him. The thought alone makes her sick. During her monologue, she feigns vomiting. Memory endures, along with regret. 

Good, bad or ugly, life remains a potent force. Death brings it sharply into relief. A newcomer to the graveyard, a young woman, sings poignantly about life as a dearly departed lover, an opportunity lost. The living are urged to take heed. The message is clear, delivered mostly through lively snatches of boisterous song. Masters's original poems form the lyrics which musical director Ross, who also performs in the show, has arranged in a variety of toe-tapping ways, from honky-tonk piano to a roof-raising gospel-inspired number as performed by Jackie Richardson. Ross plays banjo mandolin and accompanies himself when singing solo. Others in the cast, among them Soulpepper founding member Stuart Hughes and company newcomers Daniel Williston and Miranda Mulholland, likewise double as musicians. Instruments ranging from fiddle to juice harp. The music carries Spoon River not only forward but also deep into the imagination. You feel the play's passion for life on a visceral level. And you don't take it for granted.

– Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for 32 years, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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