In Spoon River Anthology, the unquiet dead of a fictional small town come back to speak. They are the characters imagined by Edgar Lee Masters in 1915; his free-verse anthology was later adapted for the stage by Charles Aidman and produced on Broadway in 1962. Today, Spoon River Anthology is enjoying a luminous production at Germinal Stage Denver.
This is less a play than a succession of monologues, although occasionally one of the six actors appears to respond to the words of another or acts out a moment that's being described. Sometimes two or three actors speak together, or one character seems to split into several. Most of the monologues are short, simple and direct. While someone who has spoken early in the evening may return later to tell us more, we never identify with one person for long or follow the arc of a story.
The six actors on stage make up a very strong ensemble. Each is highly individual, and they speak of many different things, yet the overall effect is unified, so that the play becomes a kind of moving tapestry. Although there are moments of joy, companionship and transcendence, for the most part, the ghosts remember sorrows and injustices. They speak of the sudden and ugly ways they died. They nurture petty rivalries. A husband and wife describe their bitter disappointment in each other and their conflicting views of how their marriage failed; a woman hints at the murder of more than one husband. Another woman, a poor German immigrant, explains how she was raped, and how a son was born of that rape and then taken from her. In a few fraught lines, a Chinese man recalls residents' attempts to convert him to Christianity and the sudden attack that killed him. People speak of war and that intractable enemy, time. A Jew whose corpse was confused with someone else's complains about his resting place, under a cross and among the town's anti-Semites.
Themes recur: racism, misunderstanding, the relationships between men and women, transience. The effect is disorienting: All that passion, pettiness or largeness of spirit, lust, accomplishment, love and hatred gone. But also not gone, because under our feet, deep in the ground, voices are muttering, telling us that everything we do and say is in some sense permanent.
Germinal Stage's production values are minimal and intelligent. Director Ed Baierlein sets the scene at a seance in a home strung with Halloween decorations, where a skeleton dances on the back wall with a cat on its shoulder. The set curves into the audience; the seats in the center of the front row have been replaced with a sideboard. The lighting is gloomy. There's a fine line between kitsch and genuine spookiness, and here it's walked successfully. At intervals, a sad, cracked, lonely voice sings half-familiar folk songs on a revolving tape. Whenever this happens, the actors stop, look at each other, then wander the stage appearing lost and bemused. The music stops, the ghosts return to inhabit the actors' living bodies, and the old, old song begins again: I am here. I exist.
The metaphor of ghostly possession holds throughout. It's important that these actors let the words speak through them, without getting in the way. And because the text is in verse, a somewhat representational style and distinct pronunciation are called for: Just as Japanese artists incorporated white space into their drawings and music requires silence, Masters's words should be framed by air. But even with all this, the speech must remain realistic, and the actors must retain their individuality and humanity.
Every one of these players is up to the task; their voices weave music together. Michael Shalhoub is terrific, with his patriarchal presence, strong, seamed face and rich voice. Augustus Truhn brings great conviction and specificity to his monologues. Carol Elliott shines, whether as an Irishwoman appealing to President Lincoln to discharge her sick son from the army or a dangerously disingenuous older woman who's persuaded a young lover to murder her husband. C. Kelly Leo has an intense presence that can be very effective but sometimes flirts with staginess. Tim Elliott engages fully with his characters. I wasn't surprised to read in the program that Lori Hansen is a dancer; she's graceful, and her approach to the text is a little more presentational than that of the others.
It was a pleasure when the cast began singing at the close of the play, although the soaring, affirmative words that followed were confusing. Since Spoon River Anthology focuses more on human frailty than transcendence, it was hard to know whether the ending was intended as ironic or celebratory.
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