Thursday, March 3, 2016

ANGEL REAPERS: Agony and Ecstasy In A Constant Tug-of-War

Angel Reapers
Photo by Joan Marcus

Widows, orphans, runaway slaves, asylum seekers, and all manner of troubled souls (with the specified exception of “drones, sluggards, thieves, and liars”) are welcome to join the religious community of Shakers, where they will find surcease in doing the simple tasks of daily life and celebrating the glory of God.    

Thus it is in the blissful opening minutes of Angel Reapers, the dance-theater work born of a collaboration between choreographer Martha Clarke and playwright Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy, The Last Night of Ballyhoo), now on view at the Pershing Square Signature Center. 

It is the late 18th Century in rural upstate New York. A dignified group of men and women in sober attire, followers of Mother Ann Lee (Sally Murphy), sit in a Shaker meeting house, segregated by gender. All is silent mediation, until, surprisingly, one of the women starts to giggle. But rather than look askance at the disruption to their meditation, the others pick up on the laughter, which spreads like wildfire among the congregants, and then morphs into a burst of song, the well-known Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” (‘Tis the gift to be simple; ‘tis the gift to be free), followed by an explosion of ecstatic dance. Truly, this is what is meant in the Book of Psalms when it refers to making "a joyful noise unto the Lord.” 

But just as you are thinking how refreshing it is to see religion depicted in such an uplifting and un-ironic fashion, there comes a downward turn. For there is a price to pay in exchange for the gift of belonging. To be a Shaker is to abjure bodily pleasures, to spend one’s life celibate and in a constant struggle with temptation, a soldier in the war of soul vs. flesh.  It is this struggle that Angel Reapers focuses on.  When one of the men sings “Old Stiff, you have no business here,” you understand that this is no euphemism for the devil, but a reference to an aroused sexual organ.

There is no central plot to the piece. This is a work that celebrates the visceral – religious fervor, spiritual strife, and, yes, furtive sexual coupling. For despite a lengthy litany of rules of behavior that bind the community, Nature will always find a way, even at the risk of the violators being cast out and shunned. 

Throughout the 85-minute work, it is the dancing that carries the story, an impressive display of gymnastic prowess and stamina, with great bounds of leaping and twirling and rolling on the floor.  All of it is performed with sublime skill by the six women and five men in the cast. The production is greatly enhanced, as well, by Marsha Ginsberg’s encapsulating set, Donna Zakowska’s costume design, and Christopher Akerlind’s lighting, all of which serve the dance elements splendidly and pull the audience into the heart of things.  

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the new website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics. 

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