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"What Happened in Boston, Willy?"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 1995 by Larry Stark

Edgar Lee Masters'

"Spoon River Anthology"

             Concieved, Adapted and Arranged by Charles Aidman

                         Directed by Eric C. Engel

                        Musical Director Will Hines
                       Set Design by Richard Russell
                     Lighting Design by Eric Levenson
                      Costume Design by Jana Howland
                   Production  Stage Manager Jay McLeod

              at THE NORA THEATRE COMPANY through 4 February
                         THE THEATER AT THE UNION
                Corner Quincy & Harvard Streets, CAMBRIDGE

"All are sleeping," said the poet, "sleeping on the hill."

Under the ground, however, the shades of Spoon River, Illinois, cannot sleep. Restless, querulous, spiteful, regretful, ironically prideful or indignantly petty, seventy-three solitary souls have their say in terse monlogues boiled to eloquent essence by Edgar Lee Masters.

There are marriage partners here blaming one another for their blighted lives, people proudest of things they never knew were not true, stoutly contradictory views of identical facts, and ghosts at war with their own epitaphs. But Charles Aidman's problem putting these poems side by side is that no character speaks more than a page, and none of them in dialogue. And Director Eric C. Engel complicated this problem by throwing the whole thing to only four actors who each have to play about eighteen characters apiece.

To everyone's credit, the whole thing works. Set Designer Richard Russell has hung the space, surrounded on all sides by audience, with tattered green draperies showing bits of bone. Mounds of dirt and fragments of coffins scatter the floor, and the cast restlessly wanders about shrouded in Jane Howland's faded cerements. Music Director Will Hines with guitar and harmonica and singer Regina Wambui Macharia punctuate the fabric with fourteen short songs that counterpoint the mood.

Yet again and again in this shadowy underground limbo where past lives refuse to be forgotten, an actor will find one of Eric Levenson's single lights, glance about in character making eye-contact, then rear back and deliver. It's sometimes a quick joke, like the town's moralist railing at couples picking his grave on which to make illicit love, or Spoon River's only Jew outraged to be mis-identified and spending eternity under a cross among anti-Semites. It's more often an embittered commentary on the narrowed possibilities and fleeting brevity of small town life.

Eric Engel has kept the entire evening fluidly moving from place to place, point to point, comment to insight to cry of despair or glory. Each one seems new, and surprisingly human. And that's because the actors and singers take full possession of each moment alone in the spotlight. John P. Arnold and Paula Plum, Richard Mawe and Deena Mazer manage to shape each word and pause with as much care and variety as Engel has shaped the entire evening. This poetry is eighty years old, but fresh and powerful every night.

Deena Mazer's work with The Nora Theatre Company began with their first production in this Theater At The Union space, and now she appears in the last. This season's final Nora production, "Equus", will open at the Boston Center for The Arts on April 5th. Nora's first two shows were in a space on Charles Street that had previously housed the original Charles Playhouse, the Image Theater Company, and for many years the Lyric Stage. They are currently arranging for a new playing space in Cambridge for next year's season.

THE THEATER MIRROR, Boston's LIVE Theater Guide