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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Playwright Alfred Uhry and director-choreographer's Martha Clarke's Angel Reapers does talk about other aspects of this once active utopian sect's practices, such as their pacifism, dedication to simplicity and skills as furniture makers. However, the emphasis of their combined story telling is on the struggle-filled life of Shaker founder Ann Lee and the fallout of the group's ritualistic excesses.
Angel Reapers actually had a previous run at the Joyce Theater, whose dance offerings usually feature less text and song. Uhry's focus and Clarke's way of having the six women and four men interpret the intense style of worship stamping, jumping, whirling, arm waving and often passionately intertwining is the same in the Pershing Square Signature Center production. However, the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre has been reconfigured to put the audience on either side of the stage and thus closer to the impassioned performers. To enhance the piece's theatricality, Marsha Ginsberg has added entryway-exits at either side of the stage facilitate the ensemble's movements on and off. Christopher Akerlind's evocative lighting further adds to the way the this presentation symbolizes the Shakers' celibacy rule and the loss of members for whom the ecstasy of the ritualistic worship failed to compensate for the needs of the flesh.
The men and women gradually enter and take their seats on the ladderback chairs for which the Shakers are famous. The first sound we hear is that of the group bursting into spontaneous laughter. Clarke uses this to lead into "Simple Gifts," the first and best known of the traditional Shaker spirituals that serve as Angel Reapers' musical accompaniment.
From there it's full steam ahead for the troupe to translate the struggles of their various characters with increasingly intense rhythmic routines. Except for Sophie Bortolussi and Sally Murphy who bring theater credentials to their roles as Sister Agnes Renard and Mother Ann Lee, the other performers come from the dance world. All are engaging and often mesmerizing to watch. At the risk of singling out one at the expense of worthy colleagues, a special bravo to Yon Tande for his runaway slave Brother Moses' dynamic illustration of "Once I prayed with my heart. . .then I learned to pray with my legs."
The cast also does well singing the Shaker songs that are skillfully arranged and integrated into the text by music director Arthur Solari. However, it takes a true hymn enthusiast to not tire of seventy minutes of this a-capella music.
As long as I'm quibbling, the nude scene that vivifies the struggle with lust seems Ms. Clarke's acknowledgement that even at just seventy minutes all that stomping and gesturing will eventually feel too repetitive without something drastically different. The way one couple sheds Donna Zakowska's authentic costumes and give free reign to their natural instincts is indeed different and eye-poppingly executed. However, this passionate scene does smack of obvious audience-pleasing and also takes Uhry's dialogue into overwrought territory.
Though the Shakers hold on their existence has been extremely shaky (their some dozen communities are now reduced to just one active one and another, Hancock Shaker Village maintained as a museum), the striving of people to unite does make for a unique addition to the busy Signature's season. To conclude, a caveat: Don't let the dance-theater tag and short length fool you into thinking this is a good show to bring along a child. Kid-friendliness is not one of Angel Reapers' assets.