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Review: Spoon River Anthology

Elena Trowsdale reviews Paper Moon Theatre's debut production here in Oxford.

As I’m sure as all you live theatre fanatics out there know, online theatre just doesn’t really compare to the experience of in-person theatrical events. It lacks the buzz and the anticipation of being sat in your seat. However, Spoon River Anthology proved to me that this didn’t necessarily have to be the case.

Sat in my darkened room, curtains drawn, fluffy blanket on and a glass of wine in hand, my excitement grew as I clicked the link on Paper Moon Productions’ email taking me to the Spoon River website. As I eagerly waited for the countdown clock to reach zero, it dawned on me that this felt like a really special experience. An experience just like live theatre but in the comfort of my own bedroom.

For starters, the date of the performance was specially picked to be the date of the new moon (something I learnt on the lovely pre-show website). I wasn’t just watching a YouTube video – I felt like I was participating in something collective.

In addition to the special date and countdown clock, this performance comes with its own physical anthology to leaf through as you listen to the performance audio. Spoon River Anthology is a ‘multi-media performance of music, drama, and art’, as described by Amberley Odysseas (the web designer) on the production’s website. Each monologue or scene of audio comes with its own art piece, all of which are contained within the journal you can look through during the show. It’s great to feel something like a playbill whilst you listen to the actors’ voices and the artworks in the journal are all exquisite.

Spoon River Anthology is a compilation of the individual stories of the inhabitants of the town of spoon river. These tales are all originally poems by Edgar Lee Masters, lovingly transposed for theatrical use by Georgina Dettmer. The listener is walked through these sometimes rather moving tales by Minerva Jones (Eugenie Nevin), who functions as a kind of narrator, and by the music of Michael Freeman. I have to say, the music was the real stand-out hit of this performance. I was consistently blown away by Freeman’s writing and performance which very nicely set the tone of the whole piece. His audio quality was immaculate- this really improved the immersive quality of the performance. The same cannot be said for Nevin’s audio which was a bit too crackly to maintain Freeman’s high standard. However, this was definitely a Covid-19 imposed problem, and I am willing to forgive because of Freeman’s beautiful voice and the acting talent on display in the production.

The main quality I enjoyed about this performance was how immersive it was. To enhance this sense of immersion, I strongly recommend following the advice from the production team and listening to the audio through headphones. As each different scene (and journal page) is a monologue from a different character, the audio forms a kind of ASMR vocal journey between many unique voices- a journey strongly improved by headphone use.

Delving deeper into the individual scenes: my personal favourite characters were Trainor the Druggist (Cora Bullivant), Indignation Jones (Jamie Murphy) and Dora Williams (Gracie Oddie-James). All three were performed excellently with an acute awareness of the topics they were discussing and the overall feel of the piece. In terms of sound effects, Julia (Elsie Busset)’s scene which was partially muffled, ostensibly behind a door, was incredibly inventive.

The pages of the journal also had a profound effect on how I viewed each character in the narrative. When I turned the page to the spread which signified Benjamin Pantier and his wife I was genuinely shocked by the turn the artwork took and how well this matched the change of speaker. In parts, the images told the story of individuality and interiority really effectively; while in other parts, the images were a bit off-kilter (but beautifully so). Sometimes the links from vocals to art were a little heavy-handed, such as the shell drawings accompanying the words ‘shell of a woman’. However, this clarity was useful in terms of helping the audience to decode other images and relating them to the accompanying vocals. Overall, each artwork felt sensitively collated and intimately connected with the whole performance-experience like threads woven into a tapestry. The journal turned this digital performance into a physical moment, a multi-sensory experience.

In summary, while some audio could’ve been better, I was impressed by the all-encompassing experience that Spoon River Anthology became. In a year with little to no available theatrical resources, the production team of Spoon River managed to create a magical experience of many intersecting forms of artistic talent telling important stories. From the editing of the audio file to the curation of the journal, the performance flowed seamlessly from sense to sense. I am so grateful I got to be part of the audience, and that I got to help, as the ending song says, ‘keep those words alive’.

Image Credit: Chloe Dootson-Graube (original artwork)

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