note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
Like an unseen cloud, a hush settles over the Cutler Majestic Theatre, a pervasive silence that prophetically dominates the next 80 minutes, as the world premiere production of Alfred Uhry and Martha Clarke’s Shaker musical, “Angel Reapers,” opens.
Women in designer Jane Greenwood’s historic white head coverings and gray dresses sit, facing men garbed in long black coats and wide-brimmed black hats. A girl giggles. Her laughter becomes infectious, as she spontaneously imparts the gift of laughter on the group. One worshipper stamps his foot, beating time. Others follow. They rise out of their chairs, some with uplifted arms and hands, praising God silently, while their syncopated movement marks time with original Shaker psalms.
Clarke, multi-award winning director/choreographer extraordinaire, and Uhry, Pulitzer, Tony and Academy Award-winning writer, two titans of theater arts, have worked together, off and on, they say, for the past seven years, creating this dramatic blend of Shaker spiritual and work songs, modern dance, and theater about Shaker founder Ann Lee, (1736-1784), her devoted younger brother, William, and the 18th century fanatic, religious movement that celebrated the simple life and forbade sex and lust, which they denounce.
With few utterances and declarations, the group’s story is told, sometimes as a composite, other times highlighting individual lives and circumstances. Their stoic silence and expressive movement are deafening, more powerful than words can render.
“I’m glad I’m a Shaker,” they chant, a cappella.
We feel their frustration, their religious zeal, interdependence, fears, and longing as they dance. Their joy is uplifting, their sadness, burdensome.
During the one-act production, lighting designer Chris Akerlind casts silhouetted shadows on a bare backdrop and shifts tone and time with soft pastel hues.
During a post-show performance, Uhry said the play was rooted in his fascination of the Shakers, when he visited a Hancock Shaker village in Pittsfield, Mass., (the movement was based in New England). Uhry, writer of “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Parade,” viewed their simplistic way of life, their clothing, furniture, tools, and, distressingly, their dwindling numbers. He said Shaker founder Ann Lee (nicely portrayed by Birgit Huppuch) was originally married but suffered several miscarriages, which probably discouraged her sexually. She left her husband and farm to found the Shaker movement with her younger brother, William (Peter Musante). Uhry added the siblings were unusually devoted.
On the other hand, Clarke was fascinated with the Shakers’ self-expression through dance, their shaking, quivering, twirling, jumping, stomping, flailing, during their community confessions and meetings. Uhry said they researched many Shaker hymns and songs that were sung a cappella, as they are here.
Clarke’s troupe of professional dancers at times are breathtaking, their movements naturally fluid, interlocking in slow motion or frenetically jerky. They’re individually expressive or communally syncopated while making individual pronouncements and vows. Other times, they hiss, growl, speaking in strange gibberish to cast out demons or shoo them away.
With a twinkle in her eye and a wry smile, Clarke said she also appreciated the Shakers’ dancing naked, to rid themselves of their lustful thoughts and demons. Clarke, a former artist’s model in her early days, views the naked body as a work of art, and incorporates it in her dance.
She and Uhry confessed “Angel Reapers” has some biographical and historic truth -- about 35 percent -- but the rest of this eloquently moving dramatization of Ann and William Lee and their followers is primarily the authors’ interpretation.
They drew stereotypes of real people from all walks of life and circumstances who joined the movement. Brother Moses is a runaway slave (nicely played by Whitney V. Hunter, who improvises his dance for every performance). Uhry also borrowed from historic text, he said, quoting Shaker-raised orphan Brother Valentin Rathbun’s (Luke Murphy) authentic speech reviling the Shakers.
There’s also Sister Agnes Renard, (dancer Sophie Bortolussi), a French immigrant, bereaved at losing her 3-year-old daughter during her travel to America; a former convict (Asli Bulbul); an abused wife (Lindsey Dietz Marchant); a married couple who have foregone their farm and marriage bed (Gabriellle Malone and Andrew Robinson); a cabinetmaker, (Patrick Corbin) who uses his skills to create items for the group - for God. A young man sits on the sidelines, rejecting Lee’s vows of abstinence and celibacy. Slowly, he moves towards an orphaned young woman raised by the Shakers, falling in love with her. The two have sex, and are banished from the group when she becomes pregnant.
The only drawback in “Angel Reapers” is with its structure, making it difficult to distinguish specific individuals.