Entertainment » Theatre

Angel Reapers

by Brooke Pierce
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Feb 22, 2016
Asli Bulbul
Asli Bulbul  

During the 18th and 19th centuries, first in England and later in the United States, there was a small Christian sect known as the Shakers, an outgrowth of the Quakers. They lived simply in a communal environment, and both song and dance figured importantly in their worship.

"Angel Reapers," now playing at the Signature Theatre Company, is a theatrical exploration of Shaker life, expressed through movement, music, and monologue. Directed and choreographed by Martha Clarke, who co-wrote the piece with playwright Alfred Uhry ("Driving Miss Daisy"), the intense 70-minute piece powerfully imagines a window into the Shakers' world.

It begins as the Shaker "brothers" and "sisters," sitting on opposite sides of the meeting house recite various rules of living and speak joyfully about the tasks (which they call "gifts") that await them that day. The Shakers delight in breaking out into song and clapping in celebration of life and the Lord, swirling about the room rapturously.

What gives the sect their name is their unique worship style. In addition to breaking out into song, they also may break out into uncontrollable laughter, speak in tongues, shriek, spin, or shake violently as the spirit moves them. It looks like chaos to the outside observer, but they seem to find it freeing.

Mother Anne Lee and her brother William are overseers of the Shaker community in "Angel Reapers," which appears happy at first, but little cracks soon begin to show. There are hints that some people might not be so thrilled with the rules or leadership, for instance.

But the overwhelming issue at hand is the fact that Shaker men and women are not allowed to marry, which causes many complications (and was of course the reason that the sect didn't survive long). The tension created by this rule pervades the atmosphere, giving nearly every interaction between the characters a kind of sexual charge.

There is a young man and woman who can't resist one another and eventually flee so that they can be together. But for many members of the community, their feelings are far more complicated and confusing. In one of the piece's most memorable moments, two of the men engage in a tortured pas de deux that progresses from an offer of comfort and a struggle with attraction to an attempt to overcome the desire and finally a violent decoupling. Is one of these men gay? Are both of them? Or is the fact that they can't be with any of the women in the community fueling a desire for connection with one another? Even they might not know.

Dance is an ideal medium for delving into a group like the Shakers, since it enables the expression of all the thoughts and emotions that couldn't have been said. And, in fact, there isn't a whole lot said in "Angel Reapers." Most characters -- who are largely nameless -- have one or two short monologues that they deliver, and these provide interesting insight at key moments. It's just the right amount of text, since the dynamic choreography speaks volumes.

Clarke's movement reveals the Shakers at their most liberated and exultant, but also captures harrowing moments in which they ache for love and in which they suffer punishment for failing to live up to their spiritual code. The excellent cast of dancer/actors realizes Clarke's vision captivatingly, while also beautifully singing music director Arthur Solari's lovely arrangements of an array of Shaker spirituals.

"Angel Reapers" is by no means a biography of the Shaker movement, but it does offer a kind of baptism into the sect's idiosyncratic lifestyle, creating a collage of words, images, melodies, and rhythms that you won't soon forget.

"Angel Reapers" runs through March 20 at the Signature Theatre Company, 480 West 42nd Street, in New York City. For information or tickets, call 212-244-7529 or visit www.signaturetheatre.org.

Brooke Pierce is a freelance writer and playwright in New York City. Her plays have received staged readings at the American Theatre of Actors, the Ensemble Studio Theatre, and Stage One Theater. Brooke is a member of the Drama Desk and the Dramatists Guild.

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