The Shakers, a religious society that flourished mostly in the 18th and 19th centuries (and were not unknown around these parts), were an offshoot of the Quakers. This fact was reflected in the opening of Angel Reapers, a provocative theater-dance piece performed at Proctors last week. The setting was a Shaker religious meeting, which, at first, is Quaker-esque. There was no preacher or altar. The sexes were segregated on opposite sides of the stage; the worshippers spoke and stood as the spirit moved them.
Or they laughed: The show actually began with a single woman laughing, and soon she was joined by most of her sisters. Most of the laughs were joyous; some were disconcerting. Men and women began to alternately call out Shaker rules (“men and women shall not pass each other on the stairs”) and reasons they were filled with spiritual joy (sewing and farming, mostly), as they got up and danced the precise steps of the Shakers.
After presenting this ecstasy of worship, there’s nowhere for the Shaker story to go but downhill. And, indeed, Angel Reapers slowly chronicled the fraying of the group. The Shakers eschewed all sexual contact, choosing to perfect their souls and (work out that excess energy) through work and dance.
The tensions that arose from this were reflected in Martha Clarke’s vigorous, bracing choreography. Sexually charged and often violent, we learned the back stories of the unnamed Shakers through movement.
The sexual equality of the Shakers’ organization, which grew out of the theology of their founder and prophet, Ann Lee, was right up front. In one memorable scene, the performers lined up facing the audience and traded incensory statements on sex. When one woman said, “I damn your manhood,” it was with regret, but another spoke the line with a ferocity that suggested a harsh memory of sexual assault.
Most of the performers were dancers, but their line readings were terrific: They were convincingly wrenching or amusing as the scene dictated. Mother Ann Lee was portrayed by Obie winner Birgit Huppuch, and her journey from the beatific joy of heavenly revelation to utter despair as the sect falls apart was deeply moving.
Clarke has called Angel Reapers a “tone poem on the Shakers,” and that’s as good a way to think of it as any. It’s the kind of theatrical hybrid that’s hard to describe—and, as a result hard to sell, as evidenced by the small size of the audience. But it’s a smart approach to the story of a people so full of divine inspiration that they had to jump up and move.