Eighty minutes immersed in what is, in essence, a prayer meeting can be hypnotic or exhausting. Most of this powerful dance/theater piece is comprised of the capella singing of iconic songs and illusively simple choreography involving synchronized, rhythmic stomping. When a sect member is ‘possessed,’ all bets are off. He or she trembles, whirls, writhes, or cries. Men move with men, women with women. The extremely spare script features revealing testimony which gives us some idea of participants’ history and difficulties.
Mother Ann; Sally Murphy as Mother Ann
In the 18th century, when Quakers began to give up wildly abandoned spiritual expression, a splinter group was formed. The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing (USBCSA), or the Shakers, then also known as the “Shaking Quakers,” held fast to the practice of physically frenetic, emotionally expressive sessions during which they often testified and ostensibly received messages from God.
Future leader Ann Lee, whom Martha Clarke has portrayed in this piece as “Mother Ann,” was, with her parents, an early member of the congregation. As a preacher, she called her followers to confess their sins, give up all their worldly goods, and take up the cross of celibacy forsaking marriage.
Lindsay Dietz-Marchat and The Company
A stark room holds only scattered chairs. Wisely, there’s no raised stage, just the wood floor between two sides of gradated seats and a balcony. At the back, we see a white wall and windows indicating time of day. At the front, a sliding door closes us in. (Marsha Ginsberg-Set) Shakers enter, sit, and meditate, registering no one else’s presence until all are accounted for. (Traditional costumes are skillfully imagined by Donna Zakowska so that they can gracefully move.) ‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free/’Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be… they sing (a traditional Shaker dancing song by Joseph Brackett).
Each person recites a rule of living; “Once I prayed with my heart, then I learned to pray with my legs” one says, “I call the day I first received the Gospel, my birthday,” declares another; “We bear no arms, we bear no political beliefs, and we countenance no marriage of the flesh…” they call out.
Isolation is torture. Mother Ann’s (Sally Murphy) actual brother William (Nicholas Bruder) washes her feet. They were nine, “but only William saw the light,” trailing behind his charismatic sister since childhood. Yet William is one of those who eventually can’t bear the physical and emotional isolation required.
A French woman cries out for her daughter, Madeleine, who died on the sea voyage to America. Another admits to “rutting like a pig,” losing five babies in childbirth. “I had a woman, I had a farm, but neither bore me fruit so I gave them to God,” a man testifies, “But I love them still…” Worshipers seem to look for solace and refuge in regimentation removed from all they experienced. Monologues are wrenching.
Sophie Bortolussi & Sally Murphy
Between frenzied elation and admission of sin, a few couples agonizingly attempt to connect as dance and song continue obliviously around them. Two men are wretched about their attraction to one another. Choreography is visceral. One brother appears to rape a somewhat ambivalent woman. “I fear your sweat. I curse your fingers. I damn your manhood. Yet, I bend and sway…” she admits. Another, a young man, grows increasingly upset, clandestinely meets his inamorata, makes love in front of us, and eventually leaves the sect with her.
Once again, Martha Clarke offers distinctive vision and insight into a world to which we have no access.
Voices are clarion, arrangements extremely affecting.
Angel Reapers was first presented at The Joyce Theater in 2011.
Performance Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: The Company
Angel Reapers by Martha Clarke and Alfred Uhry
Music Direction and Arrangements by Arthur Solari
Directed and Choreographed by Martha Clarke
The Pershing Square Signature Theater
480 West 42 Street
Through March 20, 2016