My hopes were not high for Theatre at the Mount’s Spoon River Project. Not because of the high school actors (MC drama students have a reputation for acting that transcends their years) but because I’d heard that the plot all unfolded in one place, one time, in a graveyard of the post-Civil War era. I’m all for history, but I was not sure that a play entirely about dead people from the 1800’s would be the most exciting.
I was right (kind of). Spoon River was hardly an edge-of-your-seat production. The old-fashioned language and poetic style made the stories hard to understand without thinking very deeply, and that made it difficult to stay totally caught up with the characters. As the play ran for the first 20 minutes or so, I started to dread another two hours of monotony.
But as more and more characters (played by a limited number of actors) told their stories, things got more interesting. Each character was called up by name, and then told the audience about their life and death through a soliloquy. That’s one thing I found interesting- in the entire show, the only true interaction between characters was with the short song and dance sessions that the graveyard residents held among eerie fog machine effects. Individual soliloquies put together stories piece by piece instead of all at once. There was no dialogue.
For example, one of the more memorable story lines was of a married couple with a man desperate for a divorce who lies to his wife about being held captive by pirates to justify his absence. The wife revealed in her own soliloquy that she only pretended to believe the lie, but that she valued the bond of marriage too much to agree to divorce. These characters never directly spoke to each other, but still managed to portray a realistic and complex relationship.
Apart from the actual substance of the script, Spoon River Project had some huge redeeming factors. For one thing, the costumes were incredible. Every girl’s dress looked like it was straight out of a history book, not at all like one of the cheap Party City Belle-of-the-Ball hoop skirt costumes one might expect from a high school production. Complete with hats and shawls typical of the era, costuming for the show was flawless.
The set, while simple, was also impressive. In the opening scene, the actors arrived on stage with lanterns that they hung around the set, which set a great mood lighting and looked amazing against the backdrop of a blue light fading into purple, which just emphasized the otherworldly graveyard vibe. As the curtain closed, the lights created silhouettes of the actors against the background, which had a very cool effect.
In the Q&A session following the matinee performance, director Diane Jones pointed out the fact that Spoon River Project is rarely performed by high schoolers. This is definitely a thing to remember when watching the play. The themes of this show are heavy and very open for interpretation, making it tough for teenagers to pull off, especially when each actor plays a total of at least three characters.
That being said, Theatre at the Mount actors did an excellent job of becoming their characters. From what I saw, the only downfall of the production was the lack of action that could lead to boredom. But that was simply a stylistic quality of this play in particular, not a flaw in the acting. With no costume changes or breaks in the entire show, the actors had to show different characters with changes in posture, hand gestures, and speaking style. I personally think this showed a level of talent much higher than what would usually be expected out of teenagers. In fact, Spoon River is one of 12 plays out of a possible 450 that will be continuing on to compete in the California Education Theatre Association (CETA) festival in Los Angeles. Seniors Reed Wagner, Winter Sherrod, and Claire Keefer are also in
So, while Spoon River Project was not the action-packed, loud, fun-filled event that some students want out of drama’s shows, it was still worth the watch. And even if Civil War ghost stories aren’t your thing, it’s still pretty cool to see a girl from your Chemistry class completely transform into a dead prostitute from the 1800’s.