American Gothic: the Poetry of Edgar Lee Masters

Tue 7th – Fri 10th August 2012

reviews

Sara Pridgeon

at 07:37 on 8th Aug 2012

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Brought to Edinburgh by director Susan Sanders and students from Northern Essex Community College in Massachusetts, 'American Gothic: The Poetry of Edgar Lee Masters' is a disjointed show, drawing directly upon Masters’ poetry to tell the stories of the deceased townspeople of Spoon Hill. While these snapshots of remembrances may work naturally as poetry, this is not the case for this staged interpretation – the narratives and characters are unconvincingly connected, unaided by clumsy transitions and bland acting. The attempt to build a town and a period in time through these short, interwoven strands is unsuccessful – instead of being left with a vivid if concise view into American history, the audience receives a confusing show which begs the question, “what’s the point?” As the thirteen actors played multiple roles, it was difficult to tell them apart, despite subtle costume changes; as such, storylines became increasingly muddled as the show went on. On the whole, the acting hovered on the level of weak and over thought; the performances did not feel natural and did not appear to stem from any genuine sort of emotion.

Dance and American folk songs were key elements in the production. On the whole, though, they were oddly placed, forced to be transitions instead of assets that supported and complimented a specific narrative. The dances, and the choreography in general, needed more rehearsal to make them click – they lagged when actors failed to sharply hit their marks. The singing was more successful. The numbers were performed mostly without issue, though Hannah Heckman-McKenna’s rendition of “Wagoner’s Lad” was the only song that fully supported both character and narrative. There were instances in which the choreography did reach its potential: the “She’ll be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” sequence transitioned smoothly into a story recounting a train wreck; the scene in which an American soldier tells of his experiences and his death while at war in Manila was successfully illustrated by the ensemble’s dying soldiers and civilians. The simplicity of this choreography was what made it powerful – with each horror that the soldier recounted, the ensemble stooped closer to the ground before finally collapsing. With more rehearsal, the songs and choreography can only become stronger aspects of the show.

While there were some flares of potential amongst the cast – especially when they allowed themselves space to play with a wider range of emotion – the acting felt overly studied and lacked the conviction necessary to convince us that these were stories worth experiencing. There is the possibility for a solid show, one that more deftly weaves these stories together; lack of talent is not the problem. If the cast allows themselves more space, lets their narratives and emotions grow organically during the show instead of charting a pre-planned path, the production may very well find the spark that it needs.

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James Fennemore

at 09:37 on 8th Aug 2012

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Before going to see ‘American Gothic’, I knew little of Edgar Lee Masters, his poetry, or the town of Spoon River from which his most famous anthology, and this production, takes its inspiration. Having seen it, however, I remain largely ignorant about its subject matter, besides a few impressionistic notions gleaned from this opaque and imperceptible ensemble piece.

The show is adapted from Masters’ collection of poems, ‘Spoon River Anthology’, which tells the stories of the lives of the inhabitants of Spoon River, a fictional small town in Illinois. Each actor takes on different characters from the anthology; the play is divided into a series of monologues, during which the rest of the cast provide some complementary ensemble work. Together, the scenes aim to build up a picture of a community who have lived through the Civil War years, imbued with a provincial domesticity.

Though a production mishap had left us without programmes for the show, which would hopefully have provided us with some of this background information (gained, in my case, retrospectively from the ever-serviceable Wikipedia) I doubt how much this would have really been able to throw the play into a more rewarding relief. Though not quite stretching to the 112 characters with which Masters’ anthology presents its readers, the production was hampered by the magnitude of its dramatis personae. The kaleidoscope of characters was shaken too quickly and too regularly for it to be possible to follow and invest in the stories of any of them.

This was exacerbated by the style of the performances themselves. Whilst the cast is articulate, and, thankfully, universally audible, there is an equally universal tendency to recite their monologues in a particularly stagey manner. The actors focus so heavily upon the delivery of individual phrases that they lose sight of the whole impression they are creating. The resulting effect is one of distancing and falseness as the actors never seem to emotionally connect with the material.

The knock-on problem with this is that each character seems the same; there is no difference in delivery between one actor and the next. A production that rests so heavily upon its portrayal of a series of individuals needs to make them more individual. The cast would do well to read back over their lines, forgetting that they are putting on a stage production, and imagine saying them to a friend or even just telling a very ordinary story. They should have faith to let the language do the work for them; if they are trusting in that, then the performances will be improved.

Despite this central problem, the production does do several things rather well. The musical performances of Hannah Heckman-McKenna and Geehae Moon are particularly good, and their singing often shows the emotional intensity that the acting lacks. It would have been nice to see music used even more in the production, particularly during some scene changes in which the momentum of the piece often falls a little flat.

The main success of ‘American Gothic’ is undoubtedly the general aesthetic, and sense of period which it conveys. The costumes in particular all fit harmoniously with one another, and watching the piece one really does get a sense of the folksy, albeit slightly limp, nature of the historical setting of Spoon River.

If the cast can sort out the problems with their delivery, then this will become a charming and attractive collection of lyrical vignettes; as it stands, ‘American Gothic’ will only appeal to those already knowledgeable and interested in the era and poetry which it depicts.

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