Review: Early Shaker Spirituals

The Wooster Group at REDCAT

<i>Early Shaker Spirituals </i>
Courtesy Photo

To turn, turn, turn will be our delight/Till by turning, turning, we come round right.” The chorus of Tis’ a Gift to Be Simple sounds sweet and full-bodied coming from the stage at REDCAT in this new production from New York’s Wooster Group. For most of the 50-minute piece, the five women in the cast sit like bodhisattvas on the stage, as static as canvases yet charged with electricity. Peaceful and yet ready to take flight, they feed us the world of these Shaker hymns with glorious precision. The slight turns and movements they make are carefully scripted, reading neither as “choreographed” nor as spilling out unconsciously from the actors’ bodies. In this show, the Dionysian spirit is at once leashed and loaded. The sounds of a record player turning at the side of the stage are just loud enough to fend off any transformative catharsis, and yet a whole Shaker world is evoked for the highly engaged audience.

Such precision, such beauty and provocation, proves commonplace for the artistically renowned Wooster Group, whose past pieces have featured everything from richly encased sets and sci-fi blazing on the screens of multiple TVs to violinists singing opera—often in the same piece. However, utter simplicity,—a term I had yet hear attributed to this band of art gods—simplicity of minds, bodies, and folk-tinged voices, proved to be the baseline of this particular engagement. In director Kate Valk’s Early Shaker Spirituals, based on the recordings of Maine’s Shaker communities in 1976, there is not a TV set to be found. And although microphones and receivers adorn the actor’s period-based costumes, the sparse elements of the stage are presnted so gently that even the jolt of an actor’s foot stomping can make the audience gasp. The indelible performances by Francis McDormand, Elizabeth LeCompte, Bebe Miller, Cynthia Hedstrom and Suzzy Roche are so subtle and nuanced that the record album on which they are based comes to life. The evening’s spirituals and interviews sift through these performances into vulnerable yet reverent mental and physical fodder.

The Shakers, known for their commitment to celibacy, embraced a god who is both male and female and took vows leading to an egalitarian and work-filled life. In the process, they created a number of “gift” songs and divinely-inspired service dances. These immaculately transposed movements and tunes are the brick and mortar of the Wooster Group’s piece. Kate Valk, in her first time directing with the group, viscerally shares the ritual as performance through these works. Filled with incredible visual, sensual and auditory stimuli, the lyrics of the songs contrast wildly with the simple sonic and visual mise-en-scene of the piece. Yet in part two of this short exploration of Shaker practice, a group of striking young men joins in the dance. In tandem with these women, who are all over the age of 50, the young men unfurl a wholly (and holy) performative dynamc. The Wooster Group has a shaker-like gift of creating simple, potent, and essential theater.

Spend a mere 50 minutes soaking in this transcendental experience and you will know why REDCAT continues to play an essential role in bringing new theater to Southern California.


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