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'Spoon River' Takes The Stage At The Poets' Theatre

Boston actors Steve Barkhimer, Marianna Bassham, Benjamin Evett, David Gullette, Caitlin Langstaff, Paula Langton and Nael Nacer will be bringing the late poet's words to the stage. (Courtesy)
Boston actors Steve Barkhimer, Marianna Bassham, Benjamin Evett, David Gullette, Caitlin Langstaff, Paula Langton and Nael Nacer will be bringing the late poet's words to the stage. (Courtesy)
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Part centennial celebration, part something much grander, The Poets’ Theatre of Cambridge will be presenting a staged reading of Edgar Lee Masters’ seminal collection of poems, "Spoon River Anthology," later this month.

"Spoon River Anthology" will run June 26-27 at the Modern Theatre. (Courtesy)
"Spoon River Anthology" will run June 26-27 at the Modern Theatre. (Courtesy)

The poems, which were published in 1915, document the lives (and deaths) of those in a fictional farming town, narrated by the townspeople themselves. Considered groundbreaking at the time, both for its blisteringly honest portrayal of small town life, and allegations that the characters were based on real-life people, "Spoon River Anthology" has come to be considered a staple of high school English curriculums. And with that, according to The Poets’ Theatre president and artistic director Bob Scanlan, comes a certain weariness to re-engage with the work.

“I get it. On the outside the poems seem so hackneyed and overused, and people got tired of them,” Scanlan said. “But upon diving back in, I realized -- whoa! This is way better than I thought.”

Scanlan, who is a professor of theater at Harvard, is directing the adaptation. He was president of The Poets’ Theatre from the early '90s through early 2000s, shortly after the organization reopened after a fire in 1962 that left it shuttered for nearly 25 years. Despite the period of inactivity, the theater already had an impossibly bright history of producing the work of leading poets and writers, including Samuel Beckett, William Carlos Williams, Edward Gorey and Alison Lurie.

Scanlan was reappointed as president of the theater earlier last year, after the organization went through another bout of artistic dormancy. That ended with last September's adaptation of “Under Milk Wood” at Sanders Theatre, and followed up with the critically acclaimed production of “Albatross,” a one-man show starring Benjamin Evett, in February that won two Elliot Norton Awards.

Benjamin Evett in the acclaimed production of "Albatross," back in February. (Andrew Brilliant/Brilliantpictures Inc.)
Benjamin Evett in the acclaimed production of "Albatross," back in February. (Andrew Brilliant/Brilliantpictures Inc.)

On the heels of those shows' success — and all the other work that came before them — Scanlan said he’s excited to be furthering the original goal of The Poets’ Theatre, which is to bring poetry to the stage. He testified to "Spoon River’s" forgotten power.

“I soon realized they were begging for a good performance,” he said. “And when you really look at them [the poems] critically, they are part of this grand tradition of American literature. It comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, and it leads to Thornton Wilder and 'Our Town.'

Literary intentions aside, the performance features some of Boston’s best talent: Steven Barkhimer, Marianna Bassham, Benjamin Evett, David Gullette, Caitlin Langstaff, Paula Langton and Nael Nacer will be bringing Masters' words to life.

Scanlan emphasized the production will not be a traditional “poetry reading,” in the sense of music stands and finger snapping. Rather the two performances will be a dramatic, lively and distinctly theatrical adaptation. He called the cast top caliber.

“Actors like these are my bread and butter,” he said. “They know how to energize material.”

“Spoon River Anthology” will run two nights only, from June 26–27, at Suffolk's Modern Theatre. Tickets can be purchased here.

Matt studies at Emerson College and is an editorial assistant at Ploughshares, the literary journal. 

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