At Toronto’s Young Centre, Soulpepper and Volcano Set Poetry in Motion
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At Toronto’s Young Centre, Soulpepper and Volcano Set Poetry in Motion

Spoon River and The Four Horsemen Project turn classic and avant-garde poems into thrilling theatre.

Jennifer Dahl, Graham McKelvie, Naoko Murakoshi, and Andrea Nann star in Volcano Theatre’s The Four Horsemen Project. Photo by John Lauener.

Spoon River; The Four Horsemen Project
Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House Lane)
November 12–15; November 11–22
$23–$89; $25–49
4 Stars

If you think poetry is a dead art form, then head straight down to the Young Centre for the Performing Arts and discover just how alive it can be. Up on the stage of the Baillie Theatre, you’ll find Edgar Lee Masters’s 100-year-old Spoon River Anthology not only alive, but stomping and clapping, in a rousing musical treatment by Soulpepper Theatre. And in the smaller Michael Young venue, you’ll be electrified by Volcano Theatre‘s quirkily kinetic homage to the sound poetry of Toronto’s legendary Four Horsemen. The two shows are very different but equally thrilling, and both are must-sees.

Spoon River is an unqualified triumph for its composer, Mike Ross. The P.E.I.-born actor-musician, who holds the title of Slaight Family Director of Music at Soulpepper, has spent the last couple of years crafting Masters’s venerable poems into a music-theatre piece. He’s tested it out with appetite-whetting performances during the company’s Global Cabaret Festival in 2012 and again last year, and now he’s served us the full-production banquet. It’s a feast of delicious characterizations, wise and witty observations, and rollicking folk tunes. Just imagine the musical Once relocated from a modern-day Dublin pub to an early-20th-century Illinois graveyard.

And a lively graveyard it is—though you wouldn’t suspect it at the start. The show begins in the most sombre manner possible: upon entering, audiences are led down a backstage corridor of the Baillie, which has been dressed up like an old-time funeral parlor, and past an open casket containing the corpse of a young woman (played by Hailey Gillis). Once seated, we find ourselves facing a hilltop cemetery, cloaked in shadows and overhung by a crooked, leafless tree. But after the casket is brought up the hill and the mourners depart, a big harvest moon rises and so do the restless ghosts of Spoon River.

Masters’s anthology consists of 246 free-verse poems spoken by some 200 inhabitants of the graveyard, who reflect on their lives and their deaths. Ross and his co-adaptor, director Albert Schultz, take a broad selection of these epitaphs and turn them into dramatic monologues or songs. What emerges is a picture of 19th-century small-town America that is both peculiar to its era and universal in its portrayal of human foibles. We hear from the tycoon and the wage slave, the frustrated artist and the unfulfilled adventurer. There are coopers and fiddlers, politicians and lawyers, a whole lot of drunks, and even more unhappily married couples.

The 19-member cast includes Soulpepper old hands Oliver Dennis, Stuart Hughes, Diego Matamoros, and Nancy Palk, but also many younger and newer performers. Among the more memorable young’uns: Oyin Oladejo as Margaret Fuller Slack, the would-be George Eliot whose novel-writing was curtailed by child-bearing; a wild-eyed Colin Palangio as arsonist Silas Dement, who discovered the futility of destruction; and a fierce Peter Fernandes in drag as the Widow McFarlane, a weaver as ominous as one of the classical Fates.

There’s a lovely penultimate song sung by Gillis about yearning to re-live a life “never fully lived.” But it’s Ross, in the role of the sage Edmund Pollard, who gets the last word. In answer to that sorrowful ode, he leads the ensemble in an exhilarating carpe diem anthem with one earworm of a chorus: “Is your soul alive? Then let it feed!”

While Masters’s poetry is for the ages, the sound poems of the Four Horsemen are for the here and now—even if that quartet of local avant-garde poets did create them back in the 1970s. The Horsemen, bpNichol, Rafael Barreto-Rivera, Paul Dutton, and Steve McCaffery wedded the anarchic nonsense of Dadaism with the jazz-inspired Beat style, producing texts that were meant to be performed and improvised upon in wild jam sessions. Volcano’s The Four Horsemen Project—first seen at Factory Theatre in 2007 and now back for an encore as a Soulpepper guest production—takes that riffing even further, combining the poems with comical choreography, loopy animation, and endearingly earnest archival film clips.

Creator-directors Kate Alton and Ross Manson have made literal the old “poetry in motion” cliché. Performers Jennifer Dahl, Graham McKelvie, Naoko Murakoshi, and Andrea Nann (jokingly costumed as ’70s cultural stereotypes) don’t just recite the poems—they dance them, too. And Bruce Alcock’s animation joins in, bouncing and swooping all over the white-box stage. The old film footage—some of it shot by a young Michael Ondaatje—puts the work in a historical context; but the poetry itself, artfully playing with words and sound, is as fresh as if it were being made up on the spot. To describe this show, however, you still have to fall back on ’70s slang: it’s super-groovy.