Photos by Joan Marcus
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.
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
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.