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Angel Reapers review: Shakers Dancing, Avoiding Sex

There is an unintentionally funny sign posted at the Signature Center outside “Angel Reapers,” a show by Martha Clarke and Alfred Uhry about the 18th century religious movement known as the Shakers:

“This production of Angel Reapers contains NUDITY. Please silence your cell phones.”

(Do cell phones make catcalls?)

A more useful sign would be:

“Warning: Angel Reapers is primarily a dance piece.”

Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged

Yes, its co-author Alfred Uhry is the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Driving Miss Daisy, and the librettist for Parade and The Robber Bridegroom. And, surely thanks to him, there are a few memorable spoken exchanges:

At the beginning, the members sit in simple straight-backed chairs – the famed Shaker furniture – dressed in recognizeable Shaker attire — men in frock coats and hats that resemble current-day Hasidic garb, the women in plain dresses and white caps, meant to cover up whatever allure their hair and bodies would hold for the opposite sex. The seated men face the seated women, and each in turn recites some of the strict and strange rules of the faith — from “When we clasp our hands, our right thumbs and fingers should be above our left” to “we countenance no marriage of the flesh.” All Shakers were expected to be celibate.

Later, one by one, members of the sect declare “Today I have the gift of…” and then list some chore, such as “Today I have the gift of furrowing the field,” and “Today I have the gift of laundering garments.”…until Brother Valentine Rathburn (Rico Lebron) says: “I have the gift of swimming in the pond all day.”

Brother William Lee (Nicholas Bruder) responds: “I have the gift of denying you to go.”

Valentine Rathburn: “I have the gift of going anyway.”

William Lee: “And I have the gift of beating you with a broom handle.”

 

There are also very brief monologues from a few members of the sect as portrayed by the show’s 11-member cast, mostly Mother Ann Lee (Sally Murphy), Brother Lee’s sister, and the founder in 1744 of The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. Lee began the community in England and moved to America to escape persecution.

But spoken lines are relatively rare in “Angel Reapers.” The bulk of its 75 minutes is taken up with traditional Shaker hymns that the cast sings a cappella, and by traditional Shaker movement incorporated into Martha Clarke’s modern choreography. Derived from the ecstatic nature of Shaker worship, the dancing involves lots of impressive (and percussive!) stomping and whirling and shaking.

To the extent that there is a plot – and there isn’t really — it’s presented through movement, showing how some members rebelled at the imposition of celibacy. This is where the NUDITY comes in; it’s brief nudity (codeword for you see one woman’s breasts.) But it reflects what seems to have most interested the creative team about the Shakers – the struggle over their vow of celibacy. “I damn your manhood,” one female character says, “and yet I feed your lust.”

To be fair, the Shaker celibacy is not some minor aspect of their faith; it certainly must explain why there is only one active Shaker Community left, the Sabbath Day Lake Shaker Village in Maine. Besides, it would be too much to expect a 75-minute dance piece to offer up the full flavor of the Shakers’ life, such as their wide-ranging inventions (the clothespin, for one!), a politics (Pacifism, gender equality) that was arguably ahead of its time, and a rich culture of simplicity that has proven remarkably influential. To pick one example: Aaron Copland incorporated the Shaker song “Simple Gifts” into his now-famous 1944 ballet for Martha Graham, Appalachian Spring. (That same song is the first one in “Angel Reapers.”) Still, one can enjoy Martha Clarke’s rhythmic choreography, and respect the effort of the creative team and the performers, but nevertheless feel let down that the result is not a more layered and informative work.

 

Angel Reapers

At Signature Theater

By Martha Clarke and Alfred Uhry

Dircted and choreographed by Martha Clarke

Scenic design by Marsha Ginsberg, costume design by Donna Zakowska, lighting design by Christopher Akerling, sound design by Samuel Crawford and Arthur Solari, music direction and arrangements by Arthur Solari

Cast: Sophie Bortolussi as Agnes Renard, Nicholas Bruder as William Lee, Asli Bulbul as Hannah Cogswell, Lindsey Dietz Marchant as Susannah Farrington, Ingrid Kapteyn as Mary Chase, Rico Lebron as Valentine Rathburn, Gabrielle Malone as Grace Darrow, Sally Murphy as Ann Lee, Matty Oaks as Jabez Stone, Andrew Robinson as David Darrow and Yon Tande as Moses.

Running time: 75 minutes, no intermission

Tickets: $25 until March 13; then $35 to $55

Angel Reapers is scheduled to run through March 20.

 

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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