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The theatrical spirit thrives with ‘Spoon River Anthology’

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The theatrical spirit thrives with ‘Spoon River Anthology’ (photo courtesy Ten Bucks Theatre/True North Theatre)

BREWER – The spirit of live theatre is alive and well in Brewer, courtesy of the spirits of the dead.

Local companies Ten Bucks Theatre and True North Theatre have come together in collaboration for their outdoor production of the Edgar Lee Masters classic “Spoon River Anthology.” The show – which has limited audiences and socially distanced seating – is running at Brewer’s Indian Trail Park, with performances at 1 and 4 p.m. on October 24 and 25. Tickets, as well as information about safety protocols and guidelines, are available at www.tenbuckstheatre.org.

“Spoon River Anthology” was first published in 1915, a collection of free verse poems that purported to be epitaphs of the now-deceased residents of the titular town, based largely on Masters’ hometown of Lewistown, Illinois. Consisting of 212 characters and, in all, nearly 250 accounts of their lives in small-town rural America. In the years since, it has become a mainstay of theatrical groups of all levels – a rare work that allows for production flexibility while also remaining evocative and compelling. That flexibility makes it an ideal offering for the current time and place.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that there are two top-notch organizations coming together to make the show happen. The production is co-directed by Julie Arnold Lisnet (of TBT) and Angela Bonacasa (of TNT), with a simple and effective set consisting of scattered stools and tombstones. The cast of 11 drifts through the spaces, easily bringing to mind the spirits they are in the midst of portraying as they gently weave around one another, shifting from character to character with the donning of a hat or changing of a coat.

Now, this isn’t a traditional narrative. Each of the stories being told by these spirits, these restless ghosts of Spoon River, stands on its own. These are tales of the individual, shared in the hopes of maintaining a connection to the material world, a light held up in an effort to push back the shadowy forgetfulness of passing time. Some go on at length, while others are just a few sentences, but each of them captures the essence of an individual.

There are war heroes and widows. Happy unions and miserable marriages. Those who left to experience the world and those who never left the shores of the river that gave their town its name. Lives lived long and lives ended too soon. All of them with stories to tell. All of them worth listening to.

What Lisnet and Bonacasa have done here is quite lovely. Through the judicious use of spacing and a minimal of excess trappings, they have crafted a world of ethereal gentility, one that allows us to convince ourselves that these are indeed ghosts that we’re watching. A big part of that illusion – one that just happens to fit nicely with the current state of affairs – is that these actors, though they are constantly moving and interacting, never actually make physical contact with one another (though I’ll concede that there may have been something I missed, I feel safe in assuming that the lack of touch was a deliberate choice … and an effective one). That notion of being unable to make contact, mourning the absence of physicality, lends another layer to the omnipresent pathos.

This group has clearly found ways to knit itself into a tight ensemble; while they never directly connect physically, the intellectual and emotional connections ring loud and true. “Spoon River Anthology” is the type of show that, despite being made up of individual moments, isn’t actually about the individual. It’s about the myriad pieces that make up the whole. This cast – Deb Ashmore, Angela Bonacasa, Angelina Buzzelli, Telly Coolong, Tyler Costigan, Joe Fisher, Ron Lisnet, Garrett Moyer, Deanna Rice, Holy Schreiber, Jesse Speed – clearly understands that simple truth, all of them taking their moments to shine while also subverting themselves in service to the greater narrative experience.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t some standout moments. The opening moment – a poem titled “The Hill,” shared by the entire ensemble – is suitably haunting. Costigan inhabits his characters with an easy charm and works with a subtlety that is difficult to pull off, particularly in an outdoor venue. Telly Coolong wields his distinct vocal tone and deliberate physicality in a manner that distinguishes his various parts with distinction. Holly Schreiber is consistently good, though she’s at her best when she’s able to discharge her finely-tuned sense of casual haughtiness. Angelina Buzzelli radiates a charming wholesomeness, rendering her more intense moments all the more impactful. And few area actors are as adept at vocally and physically filling a space as Ron Lisnet. But your mileage may vary, of course – the truth is that there are highlights for everyone in the cast (including a couple of musical interludes accompanied by Colin Graebert on the violin).

It’s hard out there for the performing arts right now, with the area’s various troupes and companies doing what they can to keep the spark alive. This production of “Spoon River Anthology” is a wonderful example of that, a collaborative effort between two of our region’s artistic mainstays. The result is a heartfelt and haunting work whose spirit will undoubtedly move you.

Last modified on Wednesday, 21 October 2020 11:52

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