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Women of Spoon River

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Spoon River Anthology was written in 1950 by Edgar Lee Masters. It began as a series published in the magazine, Reedy's Mirror, but it has long since been compiled as a single text and is now considered an American literary classic. It's reasonable to ponder why this macabre treatise--comprised of 212 characters speaking from their graves in more than 240 monologues about life along the actual Spoon River (in Illinois)--wasn't dramatized until 1962. After all, Spoon River seems ready-made for an actor's interpretation, and is regularly used as a tool in acting classes across the nation.

Thankfully, nearly half a century after Masters' initial iteration of River, the Hollywood-based Theatre West did create a stage version of the unique anthology. So successful was this production that it eventually found its footing on Broadway. Lee Meriwether, reigning Miss America in 1955, was an understudy in that staging. Now, Ms. Meriwether and coauthor/director John Hesselman have adapted Masters' piece once again. Their latest version--now fittingly onstage at Theatre West--puts focus on the feminine decedents of Spoon River.

Portraying over two-dozen roles, Ms. Meriwether proves to be a nimble performer and an adequate vocalist. (Although "Spoon River" isn't a musical, the staging offers an original score by Kenneth Atkins, and an opening number, The Women from the Hill, sung by Ms. Meriwether that sets an appropriate tone for the show.) If it's a heyday for an actor to express a variety of characterizations in a single production, Ms. Meriwether is surely having such a day. Her incarnations move gracefully from one to another. As the first poem in Masters' words suggests, there are a wide-range of individuals here willing to share their personal epitaphs --"The tender heart, the simple soul, the loud, the proud, the happy one?"--and Ms. Meriwether does justice to each of them with a specificity that is admirable. What's more, interpreting 26 personas in an hour's time is a stunning achievement in itself.

Still, it's a lot to absorb in 60 minutes. And while Ms. Meriwether--acting on a sparse stage with 11 chairs, several frail tree-like structures, and autumnally hued bouquets of flowers (scenic design un-credited) -- clearly knows who's who and what's what in the various scenarios on display here, it's easy for us in the audience to become buried beneath the blur of exposition and characterizations coming at us, as if on a speeding conveyor line.

It's not that the Women of Spoon River doesn't have something worthwhile to say; it does, and it's enacted with commitment and fluidity by Ms. Meriwether. It's that too many of the ladies presented say too much while revealing too little or revealing it in an opaque fashion that's often difficult to comprehend. That's why this latest embodiment of the soulful Spoon River seems at this point in production more of an acting exercise for Ms. Meriwether than an audience-ready play.

"Women of Spoon River: Their Voices from the Hill" continues at Theatre west--3333West Cahuenga Boulevard, Hollywood--through February 20. Show times are at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Matinees are Sundays at 2 p.m. For reservations, dial (323) 851 - 7977. For online ticketing, visit www.theatrewest.org.

 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.