It seems that whatever Soulpepper Theatre Company adapts 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), and 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 July.
Spoon River begins at the remembrance of Bertie Hume who has recently died. Before the audience is seated, they are taken on a journey back in time to the town of Spoon River. We move from the light of the hallway of the Signature Center into a growing darkness where we are invited into the place where Bertie lies waked. Unbeknownst to us, we are beginning our 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 us and thanks us 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 magical.
Proceeding down a hallway filled with sepia-toned pictures of members of the Spoon River community who have died and whom we will meet later in the production, we gradually take 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. We 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 that separates the quick from the dead, the realms of spirit from the material world – represented by a thin grey-black scrim behind which the Soulpepper cast stands until their cue to step out – rises. The spirits materialize. Those who have passed on (the Soulpepper cast portraying the Spoon River deceased) watch with interest the pallbearers – us – who bring out Bertie’s casket and place it on the ground, and hear Mr. Pollard speak his brief 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 that 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 whispers “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 of much more as the play progresses.
Like Pollard, after the 90 minutes we must contend with the material plane which distracts us with 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, heartbreaking, abrupt, shocking, funny, thrilling, and mesmerizing. They relate their stories to encourage us to feed on life while we can.
It is in that extraordinary moment, when the Soulpepper cast whispers “sleepin’,” that the themes soar: awareness/unawareness, life in death in life processes, sleep referring to soul oblivion, wakefulness referring to soul awareness/life. 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 that we see only “through a glass darkly.”
Kudos to Albert Schultz the director, 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 otherworldliness 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, or are we blinded by 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 Masters’ townspeople tells us, and each tale carries a lesson.
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 their deceased friends and neighbors and spouses must let us in on their multiple realities. We are privy to the fulcrum of secrets at 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 with accompaniment from banjos, piano, ukuleles, violins, guitars, cello, mandolin, 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 invigorating. 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, waiting 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, even though she was one who did feed on life, then what chance have we to live life to the fullest? What chance may we have to exchange 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 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 happy with his thousand memories and no regrets. And it is answered by the audience members at the joyous, life-affirming conclusion 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 the work of Ken MacKenzie (Set and Lighting Designer), Erika Connor (Costume Designer), Andrea Castillo-Smith (Sound Coordinator), and all who worked on Spoon River. In this enlightened 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 living 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) or online.