Whatever Soulpepper Theatre Company seems to adapt by way of masterpieces, their productions are like spun gold. They lift the soul with transcendent performances and remind us of what is beyond the material world, sounding the clarion call that there is “more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of” in any philosophy. Such is true of their shimmering production Of Human Bondage (see my review on this site and on Blogcritics) as it is true of Artistic Director Albert Schultz’s adaptation of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, with Mike Ross as adaptor, composer, arranger and music director. Soulpepper’s award-winning Spoon River is currently running at Pershing Square Signature Center until 29 of July.
Spoon River begins with the remembrance of Bertie Hume who has recently died. Before the audience is seated, they are taken on a journey back in historic time to the town of Spoon River. The audience moves, from the light of the hallway of the Signature Center into a growing darkness where they are invited into the place where Bertie lies waked. Unbeknownst to the audience they are beginning their symbolic transformation from mere audience members to mourners. In a corner of the parlor where Bertie is laid out in an open casket with flowers, a shadowy family member welcomes them and thanks them for attending. This is immersive theater and we are in a state of wonder and anticipation knowing that what comes next will be surreal and illuminating.
Proceeding down the hallway filled with sepia-toned pictures of members of the Spoon River community who have passed and whom we will meet later in the production, the audience gradually takes on the role of “living” passersby who come to pay their respects to the dead and learn a lesson or two about life in death and death in life. They are led through the graveyard on the hill where Bertie Hume is to be laid to rest joining those from Spoon River who have gone before her. The tombstones’ lettering, brightly luminescent from the full moon, is carved with the names of those who will later “have their say” about their narrow identities in the material plane, from the perspective of their expansive existence beyond the grave.
This is a momentous night; the harvest moon shines brightly; something unique will happen that audience members will partake of. The veil (represented by a thin grey-black scrim behind which the Soulpepper cast stands until their cue to step out) that separates the quick from the dead, the realms of spirit from the material world, rises. The spirits materialize. Those who have gone on (the Soulpepper cast portraying the Spoon River deceased) watch with interest the audience, the pall bearers who bring out Bertie’s casket and place it on the ground, and Mr. Pollard who briefly speaks his piece about sweet Bertie being taken by death in the bloom of her life. Bertie, like his Edmund, also deceased, “fed on life.”
Mr. Pollard is unaware of the spiritual plane filled with once living Spoon River citizens who, behind him, stare out at us in silent wakefulness. As we gaze in wonder, we realize that we are privileged to see into the things beyond the apprehension of our five senses on this special night. As happens to most individuals who live as material beings, we receive momentary glimpses into transcendent realms (a theme of this production) in the hope of learning and evolving. The audience and Mr. Pollard are given a glimpse. For the audience/passersby, this fabulous revelation lasts for 90 minutes with no intermission.
Mr. Pollard mentions that, if it is true and sometimes one can hear beyond the veil a choir singing and carrying on, Bertie will be joining them, for her voice was so lovely, the “angels were jealous.” For now she is on the hill “sleepin.” From beyond the veil the Spoon River spiritual choir loudly whisper “sleepin” which stops Pollard “dead” in his tracks at the vibration from the other world. What was that he heard? Was that a momentary aural flicker from the other side, an utterance from those in another plane of consciousness that he cannot see? It is then we begin to consider the theme of sleeping and wakefulness and their interchangeability as metaphors of life and death, and as it turns out much more as the play progresses.
Like Pollard, the audience (after the ninety minutes that we are transported by the Soulpepper company spirits), must contend with the material plane which distracts us by its toil, strife, physical pain and emotional heartache, all of which bring us “down to earth,” (another vital theme). Such earthiness is revealed by the Spoon River deceased as they refer to their secret lives and passions they experienced in Spoon River, and they tell us their personal stories that are heart-breaking, abrupt, shocking, funny, thrilling and mesmerizing. They relate their stories and lives as a clarion call and encouragement for us to feed on life while we can.
It is in that extraordinary moment when the Soulpepper cast whispers “sleepin” that the themes of awareness/unawareness, life in death in life processes, sleep referring to soul oblivion, wakefulness referring to soul awareness/life soar. It is then our eyes are opened to what this play will be about. To the cast, “sleepin” is a description of the consciousness of those who are “living” on the material plane because they are blind to the furor of life’s beauty and opportunities. It is also an unction for us to question our own sleeping consciousness. Edgar Lee Masters and this adaptation by director Albert Schultz enlighten us to the concept that we must awaken our soul/consciousness to a greater appreciation of who we are and who others are in this “thing” we call life but only see “through a glass darkly.”
Kudos to Albert Schultz the director and adaptor, Mike Ross and the phenomenal cast, all of whom make this beginning of Spoon River one of the most memorable and transformative theatrical moments I have experienced in live theater. Indeed, from start to glorious finish, this production is truly what the best of live theater is about.
As we settle in with the spirit-community of Spoon River’s deceased citizens, we recognize that they are mentoring us through important themes of life, death, human existence and other worldliness by relating their personal stories which are Edgar Lee Masters’ poems about the people who lived in the small Illinois community. What were these individuals really like? Does anyone know anyone else on the material plane of existence which sometimes can blind us into a sham of duplicity and false fronting? Does anyone know others’ true happinesses, torments, secrets, regrets, lies, crimes? Do people know themselves? The lawyer, the mayor, the housewives, the farmers, the rich, the destitute, the teenagers, the lovers, the lost, each of Master’s townspeople tell us and in each tale there is a lesson for us to learn.
Indeed, to be self-blind is perhaps the worst form of blindness and we are made to understand that even in death when various folks in the Spoon River community step forward and share who they were, they are not necessarily forthcoming and it must be their deceased friends and neighbors and spouses who let us in on their multiple realities. We are privy to the fulcrum of secrets that composed the core of many of these individuals’ lives; many of the silent mysteries they kept in life are filled with irony, pathos and humor.
The Spoon River souls (each Soulpepper cast member is prodigiously, musically multi-talented) relate stories in a celebration of music (gospel, blues, country, pop and more) songs and accompaniment (banjos, ukeleles, piano, mandolin, cello, violins, guitars, brass, casket drumming, harmonica, and more). The songs are in various measures soulful, vibrant, achingly beautiful, frightening, uplifting and stirring; the dances are variously joyful, foot stomping and rousing. The lighting, staging, costuming and props which backdrop each of the songs/stories are economic, beautiful, appropriate, innovative and inspirational; they enhance the overall atmospheric effect to create riveting and dramatic storytelling.
We watch and participate in the soul enlivening commemoration as the departed tell us about themselves in all their glorious, glowing and dastardly humanity. By the end of the production we understand why they are partying in the other realm. They have been whiling away the time, as they wait for the new member of their otherworldly community to awaken from her sleep of life’s oblivion to a new consciousness in “death.” When Bertie Hume finally arises from her “sleep state” and is renewed, the song she sings is a breathtaking and heart-rending appreciation of the beauty of her life that is now gone. She, too, didn’t love her life to the fullest. She too, was “sleepin” when she should have been soul-awake and “livin.”
If Bertie Hume realizes she didn’t love life as she could have, and she was one to feed on life, then what chance have we to live life to the fullest? What chance may we have to overturn the corporeal for incorporeal values, to fill our lives and awaken our souls with joy, peace and the fruitfulness of having a life well lived with no regrets?
This question is answered by Edgar Lee Masters’ injunction “It takes life to love life,” spoken by the exuberant Fiddler Jones who has joined his fellow spirits with little in the way of material objects, but is happy with 1000 memories and no regrets. And it is answered by the audience members at the joyous, life-affirming conclusion of Spoon River as the Soulpepper company with vibrant song, dance and accompaniment sing out “Is your soul alive? Then let it feed.”
This incredible production holds many beautiful truths. They begin and end in artistic genius; with the unified elements of brilliant music composition and arrangements by Ross, the sterling voices of the talented, superb Soulpepper actors, the musicianship of cast members, the enlightened adaptation by Schultz of Edgar Lee Masters’ concepts and work. The genius flows over, in, around and through Ken MacKenzie (Set & Lighting Designer), Erika Connor (Costume Designer), Andrea Castillo-Smith (Sound Coordinator), and all who worked on Spoon River. In this illuminating and uplifting production that all of us can relate to, Schultz, Ross and the Soulpepper company present a banquet. We feed heartily on their enthusiasm and loving generosity. We may even enjoy in our memories and consciousness, a raft of leftovers for future banquets upon which our alive souls may feed.
If your soul is alive and especially if you need renewal and want to feed off the sheer joy of Spoon River, run to see this production before it closes on 29 July. You will be glad you did. Tickets may be purchased at the Box Office at the Pershing Square Signature Center (42nd Street). To purchase from their website, CLICK HERE.