Directed and Choreographed by Martha Clarke

Here again Martha Clarke has given us a lovely new creation of her unique vision, a theatrical union of dance, music and narrative.  Although Angel Reapers, about repression and ecstasy among the Shakers, is a smaller, less commanding theater piece than Clarke’s Garden of Earthly Delights and her staging of  Threepenny Opera, it has her mark.

The Shakers religious sect is known for celibacy and ecstatic prayer and in Angel Reapers these are two sides of the same coin.  Repression finds an outlet in wildness, sanctioned and controlled by rigid dogma and social control.

While awaiting the performance — and the prayer meeting — the audience sits on two sides of the austere meeting house, near to becoming part of the congregation. We are in the original Shaker foundation in the United States, a group headed by Mother Ann Lee who came here with a small circle fellow Shakers, including her brother William, in the late 18th century .

I’ll never forget the beginning of this play: men and women uniformly dressed by gender, silently, in a choreographed but natural seeming entry, take seats opposite one another in the unadorned, white washed meeting house. And after a notably long silence (in which you think you’ve figured out that this is going to be all about repression) they break into laughter.

It’s life-affirming, and conveys quickly the tension between straight-faced discipline and irrepressible human emotions that the play is all about.

And then they break into song.

In a beautiful pattern of emerging, we get to know driving aspects of each character’s  emotional history. Through mime, song, dance and speech, we encounter the heartaches, spiritual conflicts, suffered abuses, thwarted passions, religious yearnings, and idealistic visions that thrust the characters toward the tightly structured Shaker life.  Beneath the cloak of conformity, suffering and pleasure are personal

At prayer meetings, as in revival meetings, ecstatic dance and song pull individuals from communal obedience to private gyrations, spastic movements, seizures, rolling on the floor, these movements signifying loss of control choreographed to beauty by Clarke.

But ecstatic release in song and dance doesn’t erase the effects of sexual repression and its heavy burden of guilt: within this small, tight knit community, homosexual yearnings are barely concealed. Incestuous love is conveyed in a delicate scene in which Brother Lee tenderly washes the feet of his sister, Mother Ann Lee who – what an irony – makes the rules here.  The passionate, anarchic love affair between a young man and woman, followed to its outcome, creates something of a plot. The essential narrative, however, is the emerging of characters from communal to specific.

Clarke’s previous extravaganzas have filled the eyes with luscious color. Here she takes a turn to tones of gray and white.  The women wear modest grey dresses and white coifs and the production, with costumes by Donna Zakowska and scene design by Marsha Ginsberg, takes its cues from those colors.  Color is like that: placing a Rembrandt next to a Rubens, the muted colors more than hold their own.

The cast that sings, dances, mimes and speaks is excellent. The dancing of the men in particular, with their powerful stomping, whirling movements, all right near you in the small theater, is vibrant and exciting.

While enjoying Clarke’s sumptuous theatricality, one senses that the underlying script is thin.  Also there is a toward the end there’s some awkward speechifying —  the authors seem to be trying to make sure we know what to think about what we’ve seen — which is unnecessary and interrupts the wholeness of the production.  In spite of a tailing off at the end, one leaves still in the thrall of Martha Clarke’s vision.

Music direction and arrangements are by Arthur Solari who also worked with Samuel Crawford on Sound design.  Lighting design, which brings out the beauty of the greys and whites almost as if you’re seeing through a delicate filter, is by Christopher Akerland, .

Angel Reapers plays at Signature Theatre on Manhattan’s West 42nd Street through March 20th.  For more information and tickets, click here.