One of Canada's leading troupes, Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company, invades the Signature Center for the month of July with a sampler pack of some of its best-loved productions, presented in rep. The centerpieces are Ins Choi's Kim's Convenience, about a corner store run by a Korean-Canadian family, and two original adaptations: Vern Thiessen's award-winning version of Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage and Mike Ross and Albert Schultz's musical version of Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. (See reviews below.) The residency also includes shorter runs of other shows, as well as a nightly cabaret. Visit the Soulpepper website for a full schedule of events.
Review by Helen Shaw
If you already know Edgar Lee Masters’s 1915 Spoon River Anthology, you may think of that long poetic cycle in a certain voice. It’s probably a quiet and wistful one, since the poems are written as autobiographical epitaphs: last cries from the dead of an Illinois town. And certainly your thoughts turn somber as you walk into Soulpepper’s version, part of the Canadian company’s monthlong residency at the Signature Center. Audience members enter the theater along a funeral-home corridor, past dark-suited men murmuring condolences. We pick our way through a tiny hilltop churchyard, then sit facing a stage, whose most prominent feature is an open grave.
So we’re unprepared for the sheer noise of Spoon River. The dead appear behind a scrim, step past the veil—and for the rest of the evening they bombard us with their stories, a gallery of annoyed wives, poverty-mad farmers, regretful soldiers and Midwestern bigwigs. Composer Mike Ross has set several of Masters’s poems to rollicking, foot-stomping tunes that require all 19 cast members to bang on pianos, assault fiddles or just sing full-throated under a graveyard moon. Masters’s introductory verse—“All, all are sleeping, sleeping on the hill!”—isn’t elegiac here; that familiar poem is transformed into a barn dance, a hoedown, a bugle call, a rooster crow.
Adapters Albert Schultz (who also directs) and Ross have selected a sweet bouquet from the anthology’s 244 poems; they seem to like the ones about drinking and grumpy couples best. In a universally strong cast, a few performers match their material so perfectly it’s nearly painful: Daniel Williston as a mad-eyed fire starter, Stuart Hughes mourning a life that was like a “boat…at rest in a harbor,” Jackie Richardson as a woman recalling old times with Abe Lincoln. Still, the most powerful moments are the massed ones, when the company fills the stage. The volume alone of so many people in so small a space is thrilling. (Masters might call it “some vibration going / there in your heart.”) They call out to the audience, demanding that we “passersby” look, listen and learn the lesson. Wake up, wake up! You’ll sleep forever.
Pershing Square Signature Center (Off Broadway). By Edgar Lee Masters. Adapted by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz. Music by Ross. Directed by Schultz. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission. Through July 29.
Of Human Bondage
Review by Raven Snook
A dense novel with whiplash-inducing changes of fortune and weighty themes—art versus science, fate versus free will—W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage resists naturalistic translation to the stage. So it is wise of director Albert Schultz, of the lauded Canadian theater company Soulpepper, to take a stylized approach to Vern Thiessen’s dramatic adaptation. A blood-red square serves as the playing area; the actors hold up empty picture frames to signify paintings and mirrors, and create a live and almost constant soundscape. Although there are only 12 people in the cast, they embody many more characters than that, simply by changing their accents and accessories. Yet their performances are grounded firmly in reality, so the play remains emotionally engaging even when the main character’s self-destructive actions make you want to bitch-slap some sense into him.
Thiessen’s version of Maugham’s 1915 coming-of-age tale chops out the book’s first 50 or so chapters, and begins when clubfooted orphan Philip Carey (the empathetic Gregory Prest) has abandoned his artistic ambitions in Paris for medical school in London. But when he falls for the calculating tea-shop cutie Mildred (a chilling Michelle Monteith), his life spins out of control. While the Philip-Mildred nomance is the heart of the story, the protagonist has many other compelling relationships, especially with arty pals Cronshaw and Lawson (Stuart Hughes and Oliver Dennis, both wonderful). Despite its necessary compression, this account of Of Human Bondage does justice to one of the most intense she’s-just-not-that-into-you sagas ever written.
Pershing Square Signature Center (Off Broadway). By Vern Thiessen. Directed by Albert Schultz. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 40mins. One intermission. Through July 26.