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It's probably no accident that Edgar Lee Masters serialized his Spoon River Anthology in 1914-15; with daily news reports of fresh European horrors confronting a largely isolationist America, death was much on the national mind. Masters' blank-verse testimonials from the dead of a Midwestern graveyard must have touched a nerve in a public still reeling from the Titanic disaster and (although it could not have known it) about to face even greater atrocity in the sinking of the Lusitania, its country's inevitable entry into what was rather optimistically deemed The War to End All Wars, and the great influenza epidemic of 1918. (Is it inconceivable that the national plunge into heedless pleasure that characterized the 1920s was a delayed, if ostrich-like, reaction to so much ineluctable death?)
Coming so quickly on the heels of an entire century of wholesale slaughter, a new edition of Spoon River seems a necessary corrective, or at least a more immediate variation. In Sonnets for an Old Century, the playwright José Rivera limns the contours of his own set of newly departed. Rivera's piece, subtitled Monologues for the Theatre and currently on view at Manbites Dog Theater, meets the challenge handily. Some of his stories are a tad elliptical; but all of them contain not merely life, but lives, whole, and shining with humanity both common and decidedly uncommon.
Under the splendid direction of Jeff Storer, a flawless ensemble of 16 enacts Rivera's lively collection of dead souls and, in poetry ranging from the hilarious to the deeply moving, reminds us not only that every human being has a story, but that each personal history resonates perforce with vital meaning.
Given a script full of speech this opulently detailed, I'm tempted to fill this space with quotations. Equally, with a cast this perfect, it is tempting to dwell at length on the specifics of the individual riches displayed in what is almost a profligate fashion on the Manbites Dog stage. But half the joy of this experience, it seems to me, is to approach it without foreknowledge — to let its exquisite light envelope you as it will. I'll note merely that in a cast as uniformly radiant as any you'll see this season, Allison Kirkland, Beth Popelka, Julie Oliver, and Mario Griego are especially fine; and Nanci Burrows, Kendall Rileigh, and Rida Perez-Salazar are considerably more than that.
In Spoon River Anthology, the 96-year old Lucinda Matlock observes, "It takes life to love Life." Judging by these Sonnets, José Rivera must be as strong as an ox; his love is more like adoration.
Note: There will be no late seating for this show, which is performed without intermission.
Second Opinion: Sept. 17th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by correspondent Adam Sobsey: http://www.triangle.com/calendar/theaterreview/story/1645347p-7869458c.html; Sept. 22nd Chapel Hill, NC Front Row Center review by Alan R. Hall: http://hometown.aol.com/theonlyarhall/reviews.html; and Sept. 22nd Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Byron Woods: http://indyweek.com/durham/current/woods.html.
Manbites Dog Theater presents Sonnets for an Old Century Wednesday-Saturday, Sept. 22-25, at 8:15 p.m.; Sunday, Sept. 26, at 3:15 p.m. at 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina. $12 Wednesday-Thursday and $15 Friday-Sunday, with a $2 discount for advance purchase online at http://www.tix.com/Schedule.asp?OrganizationNumber=150. 919/682-3343. Manbites Dog Theater: http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/2/. Cal State San Marcos José Rivera Bio: http://courses.csusm.edu/geh101cv/JoseRiveraBio.htm.