Scenes from Angel Reapers (Photos: Rob Strong)
When they meet together for their worship, they fall a groaning trembling...one will fall prostrate on the floor, another on his knees and his head in his hands; another will be muttering over articulate sounds, which neither they or anybody else understand. Some will be singing, some will be dancing; others will be agonizing, as though they were in great pain; others jumping up and down...till the different tunes, groaning, jumping, dancing, drumming, laughing, talking and fluttering, shooing and hissing, makes a perfect bedlam; this they will call the worship of God.--William Rathburn (circa 1805)
Presented by The Joyce Theater, and inspired by the history of the Shakers, one of America's more eccentric religious cults, Angel Reapers joins at least three formidable artistic forces--Martha Clarke (direction/choreography), Alfred Uhry (text) and a masterful cast of dancers coached in theatrical speech and singing for this production. It sports exquisite, painterly lighting schemes by Christopher Akerlind and haunting a cappella Shaker spirituals arranged by music director Arthur Solari. Actress Birgit Huppuch, portraying Shaker founder/eldress Ann Lee, locates the disturbing intersection of personal magnetism, motherliness, irrationality, rigidity, manipulativeness and desperation.
'Tis a gift to be simple, as the Lee's adherents would sing, and simplicity rules Clarke's stage, bare except for a quantity of skeletal Shaker chairs--some for the men, another batch for the women--placed on opposite ends of the space. When we're first introduced to Angel Reapers' congregants, their silence gives way to unexpected giggling and chuckling which, in a transition so immediate, so smooth, so eerie that it chills the nerves, they slip into a rendition of that iconic hymn: 'Tis a gift to be simple, 'tis is a gift to be free...."
Clarke's movement design builds on percussion, on the power of rhythm, especially in tight, intense, protected communal action, to take the dancer/celebrant out of his or her everyday, rational mind. This delicious, mindless ecstasy, then, is the payoff for having to agree to petty strictures such as (for women) not being able to sew buttons on the clothes of men while the men are wearing them or having to fold one's hands a certain way, right thumb and fingers over the left. Most significantly, this ecstasy--reflected in the joyous, yet wrenching Juba-like dance of the runaway slave, Brother Moses, portrayed by Whitney V. Hunter--serves as outlet for abundant physical and emotional energy, specifically the forbidden pleasures of sex.
The Shaker community took in anyone it could get--runaway slaves, orphans, women escaping their abusive husbands--because Shakers could never reproduce. For a community with its eyes on the prize of Heaven, lifelong celibacy was mandated--in the long run, not exactly a sustainable practice.
That playwright Uhry (best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning Driving Miss Daisy) and Clarke deal with the oppressiveness of the Shaker way and do not romanticize Lee's dogma or its consequences might come as a huge surprise to one man who--during the collaborators' charming, informative Dance Talk interview the previous week at Joyce Soho--wasted precious time relentlessly criticizing the artists for paying any attention at all to the godawful Shakers. Now Joyce audience members can judge for themselves: Have Clarke and Uhry struck a balance between, on the one hand, reasonable wonder at the Shakers' passionate religiosity and elegant aesthetic culture and, on the other hand, mystification about the Shakers' dogma and restrictions?
When Angel Reapers concluded on opening night, the Joyce audience seemed rather cool, and the curtain calls were over pretty quickly. Part of that might have been that audience's fairly conventional aesthetics. But I also wonder if it might not have had more to do with the production suffering the same problem that the Shakers had: Okay, so you do your dance, you tell your story, and then where do you go?
I was often moved by the stage picture or the singing or a particular performer, but then I didn't know what to do with it or with the whole of it. It all seemed severely contained, limited, a dead end. I could think, in a political way, about parallels with the heavy hand of religious conservatism in contemporary societies, but that comparison did not seem like a sufficient takeaway.
Given Clarke's well-known, marvelous propensity for dream-like scenarios and Uhry's talk of having been liberated by the nonverbal nature of their shared project, I did not at all expect to find so much conventional, literal narrative material represented in Angel Reapers. For that reason, too, it seemed a smaller, less consequential piece than it might have been.