by Alice Klugherz
We walk into the theater and we’re in it: the quiet beginning of a Shaker meeting. The audience sits on either side of the theatre. It is what is often called a soft beginning; houselights on, the audience talking and getting settled while the actors, in character, in a place and time are on stage.
But in Angel Reapers I would call it a chance for the audience to catch up; without knowing it we fall back in time to witness their life. And the heart of their life was their ritual; which involved praying, dancing and singing into an ecstatic connection to god. On the night I came a cell phone went off as the house lights dimmed (it didn’t just ring, it talked); it shook us into the present and, quick as light, we fell back.
Such is the brilliance of this piece by Martha Clarke and Alfred Uhry. This work is the result of exhaustive research, thought and intuitive detail about the Shakers. The cast is stellar, all of them triple threats in their ability to act, dance and sing and transport us into the world of the early Shakers.
The straight back (Shaker-designed) ladder chairs face each other on the stage; the women are on one side and the men on the other, facing each other. The Shakers are in various forms of silent prayer as the last woman enters the space and slides the door we came in closed. In her hands, and the context already established by the actors and the perfect set design by Marsha Ginsberg, it is the door to the meeting-house and as it is shut their service begins.
In their time they did have people watch their ritual, so in a sense we are part of the piece. When Mother Ann Lee talks to the audience she is not breaking the 4th wall she is talking to the onlookers who come to watch the Shakers.
Within the 70 minutes of the piece many days of Shaker services are portrayed with the Shaker’s individual and communal lives weaving through. So although we sit as the onlookers of yesteryear we see a summation of the key events in their lives as well as their deep connection to movement. This is a natural and brilliant structure because of how true it is to how they lived. They don’t need to be “dancified”; their lives were about worshipping through dance and song which is why it has fascinated choreographers for decades.
There are a number of breathtaking moments where the women swoop like birds around the space. It literally felt like what it is like to watch a flock of birds in the sky. Added to this was the sound; and I can’t say exactly what it was that I heard, a bit of the sounds of birds but that was only part of it. Not enough great things can be said about the sound design by Samuel Crawford and Arthur Solari; never taking center stage, I went in and out of hearing it because it was completely integrated into the piece. The dancing had a satisfying rhythmic element with floor patterns punctuated by foot stomping and singing.
I felt like I was watching a heightened but authentic version of a Shaker service. Mother Ann Lee (Sally Murphy) played a wonderful multifaceted rendition of the woman who started the Shakers. She was charismatic and tough and drop-dead believable.
Sister Susannah Farrington (Lindsey Dietz-Marchant) described in the program as an abused wife talks about finding god in the broom closet in a speech that depicts her moment of realization, when she decides to leave her husband. In another moment she is thrown around the stage; although there is documentation in Shaker history of self and group flagellation, it is also very much like an enacting of what was done to her as a form of purging. Lindsey Dietz-Marchant is thrilling to watch; she embodies a person who has given herself over with all the struggle and joy that is involved.
There are many beautifully danced/acted scenes in this show. One of the most riveting was between David (Andrew Robinson) and Grace Darrow (Gabrielle Malone) whose connection and love is heart-rendering as they physicalize the push-pull of being Shakers and no longer husband and wife.
The lighting by Christopher Akerlind brings us through the days and nights from the light that streams in the window and the subtle light on the stage itself. These changes are a large part of what gives the piece the sense of time going by.
Much of this piece is about the longing to connect, but refreshingly it also reflects their belief in connecting, however structured and strict — they lived, worked, danced and worshiped together and as much as possible drew these elements into a communal life. In a fractured world where no one picks up their phone to actually talk to another human being, and the only way to see a friend is through exhaustive texting, to me, they seem very connected.
I would not even consider missing this. It’s not only a fully realized piece of history, it’s dance at its best. At its best dance talks to us in ways nothing else can. There is no other way to tell the story of the Shakers.
With Sophie Bortolussi (Agnes Renard), Nicholas Bruder (William Lee), Asli Bulbul (Hannah Cogswell), Lindsey Dietz Marchant (Susannah Farrington), Ingrid Kapteyn (Mary Chase), Rico Lebron (Valentine Rathburn), Gabrielle Malone (Grace Darrow), Sally Murphy (Ann Lee), Matty Oaks (Jabez Stone), Andrew Robinson (David Darrow) and yon tande (Moses).
Marsha Ginsberg (Scenic Design), Donna Zakowska (Costume Design), Christopher Akerlind (Lighting Design), Samuel Crawford & Arthur Solari (Sound Design), and Arthur Solari (Music Direction). B. Bales Karlin is the Production Stage Manager. Casting by Telsey + Company, Tiffany Little Canfield, CSA.
Angel Reapers is presented by Signature Theatre (James Houghton, Founding Artistic Director; Erika Mallin, Executive Director) Angel Reapers runs through March 20, 2016 The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center 480 West 42nd Street, Tuesdays – Sundays