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‘Angel Reapers’: The Agony and Ecstasy of the Shakers

by Bonnie Rosenstock
February 20, 2016
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036
(212) 244-7529
signaturetheatre.org
The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, better known as the Shakers, were a religious sect founded in Manchester, England in 1747 that immigrated to America in 1774. They were among the first in this burgeoning nation to advocate simple communalism, pacifism, the abolition of slavery, equality of the sexes and celibacy. They were also renowned for their furniture design, architecture and farm and household inventions. At their peak in the mid-19th century, they numbered 6,000. Mother Ann Lee (1736–1784) was their most prominent leader and guiding spirit, whose influence continued even after her death.

“Angel Reapers,” masterfully directed and choreographed by MacArthur “Genius” Award-winner Martha Clarke, with text by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Alfred Uhry, strives to capture their essence through song, dance and spoken word. Shaker movements originally consisted of twitching, jerking, shouting, trance-like states and speaking in tongues (hence, their nickname), but they later developed precise choreographed dance and orderly marches, accompanied by symbolic gestures. The production highlights old-time rapture, traditional spirituals sung a cappella as they were composed and authentic Shaker movements fused with contemporary dance forms. It is glorious.

The eleven cast members slowly and silently file onto the spare stage and take their seats on simple wooden chairs. The meditative silence is broken by joyous, uncontrollable deep-gut laughter, which echoes throughout the intimate theater. It is followed by the ardent singing of their most well-known hymn, “Simple Gifts,” which embodies their message of “true simplicity.”

Mother Lee (the stalwart Sally Murphy) and the other community members follow this by enumerating the rules. Some may seem quaint, such as “No fowls may be set on the eggs of fowls of different kinds” and “All bedsteads must be painted green,” but others are meant to restrict contact between the sexes, like “Brethren and sisters may not pass each other on the stairs” and “Sisters must not mend, nor set buttons on brethren’s clothes while they have them on.”

And therein lies the agony and the ecstasy: How to live a pure, simple life devoted to God and good works while eschewing the needs of the flesh. Lee’s beloved brother William confesses, “My soul is an angel. My body is a man. I fight him. I never win.” Lee, who believed herself to be the female manifestation of Christ, found sex abhorrent. She was coerced into marriage and gave birth to four children, who died in infancy or early childhood, which further cemented her belief that sex and marriage were sinful and anathema to a spiritual life. If married couples joined, they had to become “brother and sister” because “to be love is not love. It is lust. Vile beastly lust.”

The remarkable choreography and spare spoken text exemplify their religiosity and spiritual conflicts. The dances feature thrilling winding line patterns, spirited stomping, which reverberates on the wooden floor, clapping, swaying, whirling, ecstatic group numbers and extraordinary solos and couplings performed with precision, ardor and virtuosity. Personal biographies are related, from the abused housewife Sister Susannah Farrington, in a harrowing performance by Lindsey Dietz-Marchant to the cabinetmaker Brother Jabez Stone (Matty Oaks) who struggles with his feelings for farmer Brother David Darrow (Andrew Robinson), depicted in a poignant duet. Sister Mary Chase (the lovely Ingrid Kapteyn) and Brother Valentine Rathbone (the rebellious Rico Lebrun), the young orphans taken in and raised by the Shakers, fall in love and perform an emotionally driven duet before they exit the community.

There remains only one active Shaker community in the world, Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in Gloucester, Maine, that goes back to 1783. Others have been turned into village museums. But thanks to Clarke and Uhry, “Angel Reapers” offers a unique glimpse into an unsustainable utopian experiment told with sensitivity, elegance and artistry.

“Angel Reapers” runs through March 13, 2016. Tickets are $25, made possible by the Signature Ticket Initiative. To purchase tickets, call Ticket Services at 212-244-7529 (Tues.-Sun., 11am–6pm), or visit signaturetheatre.org.
The cast of Martha Clarke's 'Angel Reapers.'

The cast of Martha Clarke's "Angel Reapers."

Photo © & courtesy of Joan Marcus


The cast of Martha Clarke's 'Angel Reapers.'

The cast of Martha Clarke's "Angel Reapers."

Photo © & courtesy of Joan Marcus


Lindsey Dietz-Merchant and the cast of Martha Clarke's 'Angel Reapers.'

Lindsey Dietz-Merchant and the cast of Martha Clarke's "Angel Reapers."

Photo © & courtesy of Joan Marcus

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