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Angel Reapers


Photos by Joan Marcus



Reviewed by Eugene Paul



They were the most successful religious community in the country. In addition to their farming properties and industries, their  stunningly simple esthetic continues to affect millions with its beauty.  At their peak, they numbered 5,000. Today, there are six. These are the Shakers, more properly, the Society of Believers in the Second Coming  of Christ. They continue to fascinate.


You are part of director/choreographer/creator Martha Clarke’s vision as soon as you enter the theater where Angel Reapers is being performed at the Signature Center. You are part of the Shaker design as you clamber to your separate but equal ranks of audience seats either side of the stage area. The moment you set foot in their  Linney Theatre you are treading the bare, wooden floor of set designer Marsha Ginsberg’s starkly beautiful Shaker meeting house, the large room already occupied by lone Brother Jabez Stone (wonderful Matty Oaks) cabinet maker, in committed black Shaker garb, silent, eyes closed, palms upturned resting on his knees, slumped in meditation.  The silence remains undisturbed (except by us) even when Sister Agnes Renard (evocative Sophie Bortolussi) enters, seats herself on the other side of the room away from the male  and enters her own thoughts, silent.


Sophie Bortolussi and Sally Murphy 


Little by little, other members of the community enter the meeting house, the women here, the men there, both groups silent.  We study them in their two groups, all of them the same and all of them different. Despite the uniformity of dress the women  and the men wear in their separate and proscribed lives (the evanescent costumes by Donna Zanowska) we have yet to see them as individuals. Then, Sister Agnes laughs, more, and more heartily, until her uncontrolled laughter inspires laughing among all the women, then all the men, and the singing begins.  The community is at worship.


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Lindsey Dietz-Marchant & Cast


The Shakers are known to have created thousands of songs, spirituals meant to be sung, songs meant to be danced all in honor and keeping with their Shaker faith, a faith we witness as their leader, Eldress Ann Lee (remarkable Sally Murphy)  sings, exhorts, dances, an equal –they are all equal – but plainly their leader. Arthur Solari, music director, combines sensitive dramatic empathies in his selection of nineteen a capella Shaker spirituals for  the worshiping and for the swirling story ballets.




The ballet–drama that Martha Clarke and playwright Alfred Uhry have fashioned adheres to her vision, his gifts added to hers, creating a story thread centered around rebellious orphan, youngest Brother Valentine ( fine Rico LeBron) being drawn to another orphan, Sister Mary Chase (excellent Ingrid Kapteyn) which culminates in a sexual coupling as the rest of the community weave in worship dancing, not only violating their very space but most damaging, the holiest tenet Mother Ann Lee has preached: celibacy, the driving force of their faith, their glue, and ultimately, their death. The frenzied dances and grapplings, all rhythms, movements, music coming from their own bodies, their own voices, sublimations, ecstasies, agonies, beauties, driven by the Shaker faith, transmuted into rapturous choreography, passionate singing.


But Martha Clarke’s vision is still a-borning. Since their last staging five years ago, the dance drama has grown and deepened. A direction has been found in story.  Shaker history has fascinated artists in the theater, chiefly in dance, but the Clarke-Uhry effort is the most defining, fulfillment hinted at in the stories of the others, of farmer Brother David Darrow (splendid Andrew Robinson) and his wife no longer, Sister Grace Darrow (touching Gabrielle Malone), together, yet separate in their community, with brother David the object of Brother Jabez reaching out for love and contact – their pas de deux is outstanding – and other stories: Brother Moses (vibrant Yon Tande) the runaway slave, Sister Susannah Farrington (inspired Lindsay Dietz-Marchant), an abused wife, Sister Hannah Cogswell (bracing Asli Bulbul) a convict, Brother William Lee (staunch Nicholas Bruder) brother of Mother Ann Lee, their leader, whose own story is so painful you wonder where her strength comes from.


We have been introduced.  We are left wanting more.


Angel Reapers. At the Signature Center, Pershing Square, 10th Avenue and 42nd Street. Tickets: $25. 212-244-7529. 75 min. Thru Mar 20.