There is an improvisational-theatre narrative format known as a Spoon River, in which a set of monologues by residents of a small town tell the story of how an event on the town affected each of them. The improv performers sit or stand facing the audience, and when it’s done well, the story unfolds with an interesting set of characters showing several viewpoints on an important event.
My first impression of The Rimers of Eldritch, the Lanford Wilson play directed by Jan Selman and performed this weekend by the second-year BFA Acting class at University of Alberta, was that the ensemble taking their places on various levels of risers and chairs, facing the audience without much interaction with each other, was about to perform a Spoon River.
I saw immediately that they were going to be speaking about a significant event, because one of the first identifiable characters was a Judge (Morgan Grau) swearing in a witness to a trial (Celeste Tikal as Nelly Windrod, a woman in work trousers contrasting with the other female performers in skirts and dresses). Throughout the performance we have occasional glimpses of trial scenes, but we gradually piece together the truth of what happened as we see small-group scenes set before, during, and after the climactic night.
The ensemble of 12 plays about 17 characters. Working out who they are, how they’re connected, and what’s significant in each of their conversations was like the pleasure of reading a murder mystery, the kind where everything mentioned in passing becomes meaningful. Martha Truit and Wilma Atkins (Carmen Nieuwenhuis and Sarah Feutl) are a pair of older women discussing everyone and everything as they sew and fold linens, with a judgemental limited view. Corben Kushneryk is Harry Windrod, a frail old man who insists he saw the crime, but I soon decided that he too was an unreliable narrator. Kushneryk did a great job of conveying his character’s physical and mental frailties without caricaturing. Kristen Padayas’s character Eva was a young girl with a physical disability, protected by her religious mother Evelyn (Natasha Napoleao), naive, joyful, and isolated. Her only friend is Robert (Bradley Doré), a slightly older boy dealing with a family tragedy and some identity issues. Other inhabitants of the failing US midwest town include café owner Cora (Jessy Ardern), Walter (David Feehan) a young man whose presence in the café leads to gossip, and the Johnson family of farmers, parents Peck and Mavis (Jordan Sabo and Jessy Ardern), restless daughter Patsy (Natasha Napoleao), and her casually cruel older brother Josh (Morgan Grau). Various other townspeople are added by double-casting and simple costume shifts. Many of the stories are about an unsavory homeless man, Skelly Mannor (Stuart McDougall), who lurks about the stage as about the town, in a hunched-over unnerving way. McDougall plays the character with a slight Irish-like accent, which puzzled me a bit but added to the impression of him being a misfit in the town.
Near the end of the performance, I formed the theory that maybe the only reliable narrator in the whole performance was Skelly Mannor, whom most of them are ignoring or vilifying. And that theory seemed to work. Nobody else in the town really finds out the truth about what happened the night Skelly Mannor was shot, and mostly they don’t seem to want to. And there aren’t any obvious positive outcomes or character developments from the set of events either. People’s lives are just going to go on, messy and unhappy, trying to find comfort and cutting out people who don’t fit in. It was disturbing and real and I liked it.
The multiple casting gave many of the ensemble members the opportunity to create characters of different ages and viewpoints, which was fascinating to watch. I look forward to seeing what else this ensemble does over the next few years, together at U of A and separately in local productions.