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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Virtual, live ‘Spoon River Project’ spicy, troubled in Manitowoc

Critic At Large

The Masquers, Inc.

Erin LaFond as fiery Zilpha Marsh in The Masquers, Inc. production of “The Spoon River Project.” (Warren Gerds screenshot)

MANITOWOC, Wis. (WFRV) – Mortality. This is a time of thinking about mortality, what with the coronavirus COVID-19 rattling our front door.

This is a good time for “The Spoon River Project (a play with music),” set in a graveyard with the inhabitants speaking freely and without consequence.

Some speaking are dearly departed, and some are not-so-dearly departed.

In this piece, all secrets are out.

One inhabitant was the man who once chiseled the epitaphs on gravestones, knowing when platitudes hid the truth. He adds a wry cut about historians who write in rose-colored ways while knowing the truth.

This is a deep and affecting theater piece. It originated in 1915 as poetry by Edgar Lee Masters, admired/vilified for cutting so close to the bone of human foibles. This version by Tom Andolora is of this century and is an abbreviation that nonetheless contains Edgar Lee Masters’ knife marks.

The Masquers, Inc. historic community theater – 90 years – leaps into “The Spoon River Project (a play with music)” with both feet.

This is a full-on production – large cast, period costumes, solo and ensemble singing, dancing, video graphics (still and moving images), special lighting and sound needs – and presented in-person and livestream.

Host Kevin Sievert in his home. (Screenshot)

The performance is introduced by Kevin Sievert from his home. He’s settling in for an evening of home theater, “theater” being theater indeed.

The scene shifts to the Get Reel Lakeshore Cinema, repurposed for the live theatrical presentation and yet ready-made with a screen for the visual effects.

Thursday’s opening livestream presentation was indeed “live” but the “stream” part was a major problem. Words and images at first – for 17 minutes or so – did not flow like a stream. Transmission gaps made listening/viewing frustrating. Voices could be heard for a second or two, then nothing. Moving images could be seen for a second or two, then jump ahead to another part of a movement. Eventually, the transmission improved to a consistent flow, mostly, and this remarkable piece could be absorbed.

The production and piece have a certain bravado.

Produced by Paul Hacker and directed by director Claran LaViolette, the production speaks “team” – for taking on knee-deep challenges, not the least being COVID-19 restrictions. Photos show the cast rehearsing in masks. The performance is without masks with social distancing.

Overview.

The piece speaks “honesty.” Characters describe their doings in life – the pastor with thirst for liquor, the husband and wife who blame each other for their miseries, the runaway husband and the wife who allows him back and does not forgive but maintains the marriage because “a promise is a promise,” the seduced maid who admires from afar her illegitimate son of great achievement, the murderous wife who got away with it – all kinds of juicy stuff.

The players often perform multiple characters, showing skill at wide-ranging types.

I’ve got to hand it to J Gravelle for going an extra distance for one of his roles – a scruffy guy who doesn’t have all his top front teeth. His other characters have all their teeth. J Gravelle took out his partial! Way to go, J.

It’s that kind of commitment among the company that can be sensed throughout this production.

***

Playbill link: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1FMhig1u93PYaI_Y4-O_oqadqeJkxRKCl/view?usp=drivesdk

Creative: Source – “The Spoon River Anthology” by Edgar Lee Masters, adapted as “The Spoon River Project (a play with music) by Tom Andolora; producer – Paul Hacker; director – Claran LaViolette; sound track – Warren Schmidt; choral director – Erin LaFond; choreography – Malachia Storm Dabeck, Aaron Murphy; stage manager – Wendy Van Laahoven; set designer – Warren Schmidt; costume design – Claran LaViolette, Dani Frahm, Ann Wolf; hair and make-up design – Missie Wendorf, Addison Fowler; load in and build crew – Maxwell Alexander, Tom Bartelme, Roger Bennin, Bruce Bitter, Cindy Bradley, Dani Frahm, Kevin Frahm, J. Gravelle, Darcy Gravelle, Paul Hacker, Jake Jacquart, Gregg Wolf; lighting design – Lori Hebel; spotlight – Tom Bartelme, sound engineer – Edward “Nitro” Barta; computer graphics/projections – Malachia Storm Dabek, technical crew – Aaron Murphy; videographer – Nathan Ramaker; virtual coordinator – Kevin Sievert; social media coordinator – Kevin Sievert; program – Phillip Jindra; publicity and advertising design – Warren Schmidt; ticket sales – Kathy Kowalski

Character/player (in order of appearance)

Archibald Higbie – Maxwell Alexander
Walter Simmons – Roger Bennin
Maurice – J Gravelle
Sarah Brown – Dani Frahm
Rev. Abner Peet – Bruce Bitter
Lucinda Matlock – Cindy Bradley
Willard Fluke – Gregg Wolf
Nellie Clark – Em Schaller
Abel Melveny – Jake Jacquart
Margaret Fuller Slack – Ann Wolf
Mrs. Williams – Kathy Kowalski
Washington McNeely – Warren Schmidt
Mary McNeely – Dani Frahm
Daniel McCumber – Henry Rotter
Georgine Sand Miner – Erin LaFond
Deacon Taylor – Paul Hacker
Dorcas Gustine – Catherine Egger
George Gray – Warren Schmidt
Zenas Witt – Jake Jacquart
Rosie Roberts – Em Schaller
Ollie McGee – Darcy Gravelle
Fletcher McGee – J Gravelle
Tom Merritt – Gregg Wolf
Mrs. Merritt – Ann Wolf

Jake Jacquart in one of his characters. (Screenshot)

Elmer Karr – Maxwell Alexander
Roscoe Purkapile – Jim Liddle
Mrs. Purkapile – Betty Liddle
Frances Harris – Ann Wolf
Thomas Greene – Gregg Wolf
Hamilton Greene – Maxwell Alexander
Elsa Wertman – Darcy Gravelle
Zilpha Marsh – Erin LaFond
Eugene Carman – Gregg Wolf
Clarence Fawcett – David Bouffard
Doc Hill – Roger Bennin
Mrs. Kessler – Ann Wolf
Richard Bone – David Bouffard
Aunt Persis – Claran LaViolette

Warren Schmidt in one of his characters. (Screenshot)

Searcy Foote – Roger Bennin
Daisy Frazier – Darcy Gravelle
Lydia Puckett – Catherine Egger
Hannah Armstrong – Betty Liddle
Soldier – Henry Rotter
Robert Davidson – Warren Schmidt
Harold Arnett – Bruce Bitter
Doctor Meyers – Paul Hacker
Minerva Jones – Erin LaFond
Mrs. Meyers – Cindy Bradley

***

Running time: 90 minutes

Remaining performances, in–person and livestream: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 13 and 14 at the Get Reel Lakeshore Cinema, 1118 Washington St., Manitowoc. For the in-person audience, seating is limited and social distancing requirements will be observed.

Info: themasquers.org

***

Ahead: “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” March 4-6, 11-13; “Clue on Stage,” May 6-8.

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