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Colin Palangio, Mike Ross, Brendan Wall, Frank Cox-O'Connell, Gordon Hecht and Diego Matamoros in Soulpepper’s Spoon River.

Cylla von Tiedemann

Spoon River

  • Directed by Albert Schultz
  • Adapted by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz
  • Based on Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters
  • Three stars

The Four Horsemen Project

  • Conceived and directed by Kate Alton and Ross Manson
  • Based on the poetry of Rafael Barreto-Rivera, Paul Dutton, Steve McCaffery, bpNichol
  • Both At Soulpepper Theatre Company in Toronto
  • Three and a half stars

For years now, Soulpepper's versatile musical director Mike Ross has had an ongoing project of setting 20th-century poetry to music for the Toronto theatre company's frequent cabarets. A few of his efforts have been upgraded to full theatrical productions in the regular season – two based on Dennis Lee's poetry (Civil Elegies and Alligator Pie) and one on that of ee cummings ((re)Birth).

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Spoon River feels like a culmination; it's certainly the biggest show built around Ross and his song settings to date, the first to grace Soulpepper's biggest stage and featuring a cast of 19 actor-musicians.

This uplifting hootenanny is based on Spoon River Anthology, Edgar Lee Masters's collection of free-verse epitaphs for hundreds of fictional men and women buried in a small-town cemetery in Illinois. First serialized in 1914 in a St. Louis journal called Reedy's Mirror, Masters's bittersweet eulogies were inspired by Midwesterners the Kansas-born lawyer and journalist knew in his youth. His anthology of portraits is said to have been second only to The Waste Land in impact on the world of poetry in the first quarter of the century.

Inspired by immersive theatre, director Albert Schultz has the fine idea of having Spoon River's audience arrive at the show as mourners at a funeral. Instead of entering the Baillie Theatre through the front door, we file down a hallway past black-and-white photos and an open casket with a young woman in it, then through the sounds of the countryside at night, up on stage and into the cemetery. (The set and lighting designer is Ken MacKenzie, while Jason Browning is the sound designer.)

There, Diego Matamoros, as an unnamed preacher, sets the tone for the evening, delivering a eulogy to the deceased we passed on the way in. He speaks of "our little town," which immediately connects Masters's poems about the commonplace terrors of 19th-century life with the famed Thornton Wilder play on the same subject. (Not coincidentally, Our Town was the first play Soulpepper performed in the Baillie; a theatre space has its layers of history, too, like a cemetery on fast-forward.)

In The Hill, Masters describes death as a great leveller, where ones become all. Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Ella, Kate and Edith? "One passed in a fever," "one was burned in a mine," "one died in shameful child-birth," but "All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill."

The Hill is the first song in Ross's cycle – and instead of a sombre, sour invocation, it becomes a bluegrass anthem, sung by the actors who crowd the lip of the stage like tombstones – and play fiddles and brass instruments and bang on a coffin for percussion.

Soon enough, this mass is individuated again and we meet a string of small-town characters with names like AD Blood and Fiddler Jones and Lucius Atherton (a "toothless, discarded, rural Don Juan" played by Stuart Hughes) who speak or sing their short stories.

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Many of Soulpepper's regulars double as musicians, so you'll find Nancy Palk playing the autoharp as a woman mourns her soldier son, or Gregory Prest sliding stints on the trombone in between memorable sketches of a variety of eccentrics.

Soulpepper newcomers make strong impressions – Frank Cox-O'Connell as a wild-eyed drunk in a demonic Dixieland number; Peter Fernandes in a cross-gender performance as the soulful Widow McFarlane; silver-voiced Hailey Gillis as one of the last of many young women who end up on the hill before their time.

Schultz has marshalled a number of memorable images with a few versatile set pieces. An arsonist's epitaph involves ladders that soon turn into tracks, upon which fiddler Miranda Mulholland of the Great Lake Swimmers performs a haunting duet with an approaching train whistle.

While it's wonderful to have such a large cast on stage, Schultz is better at showing us the trees than the forest – and the larger numbers sometimes feel like poetry in commotion. It also feels wasteful to have the likes of Palk only make cameos; truthfully, a smaller cast with more doubling would actually be more theatrical, less shambolic.

My consistent quibble with Ross's overall project is that poems are not lyrics – and no matter how sensitive his settings, the words sometimes jar with the music (and occasionally become hard to hear). Masters's poems – many are more like microfiction – have sudden, dark twists, powerful punchlines that don't really have a matching musical structure.

Spoon River works, nevertheless; it's even magical. But it has too many endings at the moment and could use another go-around to make the acting styles match up. It's worth catching now, though I suspect it will be even better when it is resurrected in March as part of Soulpepper's 2015 season.

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Also playing

Presented by Soulpepper on their second stage is a poetic production that's both more polished and more anarchic.

The Four Horsemen Project, conceived by choreographer Kate Alton and Volcano theatre director Ross Manson, is based on the visual poetry and sound poems devised collectively and separately by the 1970s avant-garde poets Rafael Barreto-Rivera, Paul Dutton, Steve McCaffery, and bpNichol.

This Toronto-based quartet, Canada's upbeat version of the Beats, performed together as the Four Horsemen until the death of bpNichol in 1988. Their Dada-inspired poetry doesn't have to be adapted for the stage; it's meant to be performed. Alton has simply added off-beat dance to the mix, while Bruce Alcock has turned visual poems into wonderful animations that the cast of four interact with. The anchoring words are bpNichol's, from his chanted Pome Poem: "What is a pome is inside of your body body body body body."

Alton and Manson have found the perfect semi-serious tone for their hybrid show, which features plenty of hilarious archival footage of the louche poets lounging around in Toronto apartments mumbling about the mystic roots of their howl poems and word games. The four dancers/spoken-word artists – Jennifer Dahl, Graham McKelvie, Naoko Murakoshi and Andrea Nann – are equally impressive, somehow keeping consummately cool as they recite tongue twisters and contort their limbs. (With throat singer Tanya Tagaq fresh in mind after her Polaris Prize win, it's hard not to feel that some of the Four Horsemen's wordless vocalizations had indigenous inspiration.)

This is a victory lap for a galloping production that has won numerous awards and accolades since it premiered in 2007. As critic Kamal Al-Solaylee wrote at the time, "Please, please, please believe the hype."

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The Four Horsemen Project continues to Nov 22.

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