In walking into Soulpepper’s Baillie space, I had initially expected to be walking into the space I had once seen plays such as Miller’s Crucible and Ibsen’s Ghosts, though it had not occurred to me this particular night that I would be stepping into the mouth of a graveyard. Adapted from Edgar Lee Master’s collection of free-form poetry entitled Spoon River Anthology, Soulpepper’s production of Spoon River provided audiences with a warm soul to accompany them and shelter us from the cold November night. Leaving behind remnants of ash from the shattered, yet poetic lives of the townspeople of Spoon River, Soulpepper brings hope from death, giving Thornton Wilder a run for his money.
As I had entered the theatre I was lead down a narrow hallway where portraits of whom I was later to discover were the deceased townspeople of Spoon River hung. Continuing down the hall I passed by a booklet of signatures (all audience members were free to sign), which was accompanied by one of the townspeople and an eerie soundscape of whispering voices. As I moved on through the hallway and into the cemetery on stage, the various sounds of the creek gradually became more pronounced. Once I had finally made my way into the audience and found a seat, the aura of a nightly chamber crept up my spine as I patiently waited for what was to come. I found this to be particularly interesting, not only because of the already immersive nature of gallery theatre, but because of the already rich culture being spoken of in the play, and its purely integral connection to nature.
The show opened with the entire cast performing what could be described as a Wagner folk orchestra. Implementing every voice of the cast, this mass choir of poetic folk dialect offered an experience straight from the heart of the agricultural Graceland. Every performance was solid, though one scene in particular stood out in mind as it not only changed the perspective of the setting, but created an extremely uneasy, dark poetic atmosphere. As the show progressed, the lights on stage eventually went out temporarily and left bright dots on the trees, creating the illusion of starlight. Below the stars stood actress Raquel Duffy’s character, Spoon River’s violin player, confessing her secrets on a dark, empty stage. Ambiguous, yet in turn darkly satisfying, this scene not only left me in chills but introduced the audience to another setting to accompany the already vast cornucopia of dynamic characters.
The music in particular, composed by Mike Ross (also one of the many performers), offered a wide and versatile injection of Master’s poetry, ranging from furiously loud folk chants to soft lonesome ballads, all successfully embracing and distinguishing each character from one another. A few of my favourite characters were portrayed by Peter Fernandes and Hailey Gillis. The character that particularly struck me, in regards to Fernandes (as many of the actors had played different roles throughout the play) was interestingly enough a woman, whose rage and liveliness lit up the stage with passion, as (s)he scolded the audience and scoffed at their ignorance. Hailey Gillis’ portrayal of innocence towards the end of the show set a delicate, yet meaningful spark with her universal understanding of the human soul and its deepest moments of personal struggle.
All in all, Mike Ross and Albert Schultz’s adaptation not only proved to have been a successful venture into the romanticized rural setting, but offered the experience of nostalgia for those who had never even experienced it.
Spoon River runs through Nov. 15 at the Soulpepper Theatre. For more information please visit https://www.soulpepper.ca/performances/14_season/spoon_river.aspx
Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann