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BWW Review: Martha Clarke and Alfred Uhry's ANGEL REAPERS Lightly Touches on Shaker Culture


Members of The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, a religious sect that branched off from the Quakers in the 18th Century, are best remembered as the Shaking Quakers or simply, the Shakers.

(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Nicknamed for their practice of erratically twitching and jerking during choreographed worship services, they seem a likely subject for a dance-focused director like Martha Clarke. Their practice of living communally, with both genders sharing leadership roles, while practicing pacifism and celibacy, gives playwright Alfred Uhry a bit to work with in creating a text for their collaboration, ANGEL REAPERS.

When it was first seen in New York in 2011, ANGEL REAPERS, which gets its name from a Shaker hymn about angels reaping the chosen few from among mankind, was presented proscenium style at the Joyce Theater, a dance venue. Now presented by the Signature Theatre Company, there appears to be a greater attempted to make the audience feel immersed into the production, which is stylized as a worship service.

Patrons are seated arena-style on two sides of the playing floor, which is bare, save for wooden ladder-back chairs. Some characters are already seated as the audience enters and others wander in periodically until it's time to begin.

As spiritual leader Ann Lee, better known as Mother Ann, Sally Murphy leads the service, which opens with the familiar hymn "Simple Gifts."

The men and women, seated on opposite sides, then take turns reciting a list of practices, such as "Brethren and sisters may not pass each other on the stairs," and "All who sleep in the same room must go to bed at the same time."

Sally Murphy (Photo: Joan Marcus)

There's more singing, a capella under music director Arthur Solari, and communal scenes giving us insight to the Shaker culture. When the group takes turns announcing the gifts of service they're been blessed with ("Today I have the gift of laundering garments." "I have the gift of repairing the henhouse."), the young, rebellious Valentine Rathburn (Rico Lebron) is gently, but firmly threatened with a beating if he acts on his insistence, "I have the gift of swimming in the pond all day."

In a private moment, Valentine condemns the blind faith of the community, calling Ann Lee "Satan in the guise of a sweet angel of light."

At seventy minutes, ANGEL REAPERS is light on drama and conflict, save for making the point that the separation of the genders works against the natural urges some would consider another gift. Clarke's mix of contemporary dance with traditional Shaker movement is finely showcased, but while the piece may strike curiosity about the sect, it's hardly a satisfying exploration.

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