In The Spoon River Project, the actors tread not boards but grass. Produced in Green-Wood Cemetery, this unique theater piece, adapted and directed by Brooklyn College professor Tom Andolora, brings to life the monologuing ghosts from Edgar Lee Master’s free-verse Spoon River Anthology. That collection, first published in 1915, was among the first works of American letters to expose what the poet calls “the false chronicles of the [head] stones”—the alcoholism, thwarted ambition, out-of-wedlock childbirth, tragic deaths, murder, pre-marital and extra-marital sex concealed beneath small-town America’s ostensible decorum. “Rich, poor, weak, strong,” says one character. “Sinners all.”
Those sinners are said to be “sleeping on the hill,” but here they are revenant. A cast of 11 depicts 43 characters from Masters’ original 244, most seated on garden chairs placed along a hill, each calling up the others to deliver front-facing, upstage soliloquies that reveal the nature of their lives and deaths—and the scandals in between. (Some of these stories are intertwined; while there’s no dialogue, the characters frequently direct their monologues toward each other.) After a few of these stories, the characters harmonize on old hymns and American folk songs, accompanied by two violinists and a keyboardist; while musicians often drench such music in mawkish sentiment, here the songs are played and sung without affectation, magnifying their mastery of consonance, their perfect melodies, their few-frills beauty.
Such simplicity—the elemental foundations of the characters’ detailed and richly felt stories—is this production’s key, second only to its masterful use of the unusual setting. I have seen something like this before: in 2008, the Quakers opened their rarely open-to-the-public cemetery in Prospect Park and had volunteers recount some of the residents’ life stories. But this production is far richer—for the eminence of its source, for its professional pedigree, for its crepuscular setting.
At the first of two preview performances, an audience of about 75 sat in provided folding chairs set in the middle of the cemetery’s Dell Avenue. Ahead, the grassy stage; behind, flickering cressets. Soft, leaf-rustling breezes transported the sweet and dusty fragrance of torch smoke and flowering trees through the warm air. Daylight slowly faded, dusk turning to dark, as the actors appeared from over the knoll—spectral, sauntering, clad in period garb and toting lanterns. In the gloaming, bats twitched above their heads; moths dawdled. Every gust of wind seemed dramatically timed. You could almost forget the city outside but for the interrupting whistles of passing airplanes, the occasional faraway siren, the darkened trolley a few yards off, waiting to carry us back to the dirt and noise of Fifth Avenue. Among ghosts in Green-Wood at night, death started to seem superior to Sunset Park.
The Spoon River Project opens tonight and plays again on Saturday, both at 8 p.m. and a “midnight” show. Next week, it plays on Wednesday to Saturday evenings, with another midnight show, followed by a Sunday matinee. More info here.