by Samuel L. Leiter
Angel Reapers is a collaborative project by playwright Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy) and director-choreographer Martha Clarke. Following Chéri, it’s the second of three productions she’s scheduled to do under the Signature Theatre’s Residency Five program. The piece, seen at the Joyce Theatre in 2011, is a dance, song, and spoken word expression of the Shaker religious experience. Founded in England in the 18th century, and now nearly extinct, the Shakers are a sect of “charismatic” Christians who branched off from the Quakers, came to America during Colonial times, and became known, among other things, for their minimalist aesthetic. Their first important leader was Ann Lee.
Lee, known as Mother Ann (Sally Murphy), was a preacher who had many revelations and was deemed the Second Coming of Christ. Viewing sex as the root of all evil (presumably as the result of her having had a series of stillbirths), she turned to celibacy as one of her guiding principles. Sexual frustration is the sole driving force behind whatever drama the piece inspires, while other aspects of the sect’s interesting beliefs are simply ignored.
Angel Reapers puts Mother Ann and her community, represented by a cast of 10, in a broad open, wood-floored space—designed by Marsha Ginsberg—between two sets of bleachers, facing a shallow balcony area. Upstage is a simple off-white wall with windows and a door. Eleven straight-backed chairs provide the only furnishings. Dialogue is minimal and, while there are dramatic moments, the emphasis is on dance and the a cappella singing of Shaker spirituals, usually to the accompaniment of rhythmic stomping (it’s hard not to think of Riverdance).
Each performer plays a specific historical character named in the program, but, apart from Mother Ann, it’s difficult to say who’s who. Donna Zakowska’s historically researched costumes are nearly uniform, the women wearing long, full dresses in several shades of gray, with white bibs and close-fitting white caps. The men, most of them bearded, are in black suits and hats resembling Amish or even Hassidic apparel. The visual impact gains enormously from Christopher Akerlind’s painterly, chiaroscuro lighting.
Angel Reapers is slow warming up as the performers demonstrate their worshipful behavior in dance and movement; there are periods where the relative sameness of the visual elements and music, while always lovely, grows dull. The seating arrangement makes it easy to notice that yours may not be the only heavy eyelids. Happily, despite the lack of a plot, drama eventually appears, always in relation to frustrations inspired by the sect’s sexual restrictions, which can be severely punished when ignored. A male homoerotic attraction as well as a lovemaking sequence involving partial female nudity offer brief, if questionable, transgressive moments.
The biggest drawback of Angel Reapers is that Clarke’s choreographic blend of Shaker movement with modern dance, while cerebrally beautiful, never achieves the ecstatic level described in a Playbill quotation erroneously attributed to a William Rathburn who is said to have observed a Shaker worship service in 1805 (the writer is actually Valentine Rathbun, who wrote it in 1781).
Rathbun notes how the participants fell to the ground, trembling and groaning, each behaving in a unique way as he or she sang or made indecipherable sounds—this one lying prostrate, that one on his knees with head in hands, another one dancing, others showing agonizing pain, and yet others chasing away evil spirits, “till the different tunes, groaning, jumping, drumming, laughing, talking and fluttering, shooing and hissing, makes a perfect bedlam; this they call the worship of God.”
Recreating such an experience, if possible, would have had a much more heady impact than the sanitized performance on display, in which some of these behaviors are shown individually, but never as a concatenation of religious rapture.
The Pershing Square Signature Theatre/Linney Courtyard Theatre
480 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through March 20
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).