Friday, November 18, 2011

Not-so-simple gifts

Whitney V. Hunter in Angel Reapers.
Angel Reapers, the new meditation on the Shakers by choreographer Martha Clarke, playwright Alfred Uhry, and music director Arthur Solari (through this weekend at ArtsEmerson), opens with a transcendent theatrical coup: a religious community gathers onstage (men and women separate but facing each other), and then gently begins to giggle.  The giggles turn to laughter, then guffaws, as something like pure, pointless, child-like joy briefly tingles in the air; and then, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, the community, now a congregation, launches seamlessly into a hymn.  Joy; music; God.  The equation is as simple as a Shaker chair.

This proves to be only the first of many such magical moments conjured by Clarke's choreography (which only occasionally aligns with the Shakers' distinctive dances), all of which are supported by exquisite singing (impeccably arranged and conducted by Solari).

But it's probably the last time we connect with the sense of pure joy many of us associate with the Shakers; again and again, Angel Reapers proffers not only their simple gifts, but complex metaphors regarding the underside of their celibate existence - all conveyed via a nearly perfect meld of movement and music.

The string on which these jewels are strung, however, is only just adequate to hold them together; playwright Uhry's contribution proves so slight and episodic that we feel a deeper potential moving in the material than has so far been unlocked (and we often need the program to figure out who's who).  We can make out a rough story line in the performance - a couple falls in love, and are forced to leave the sect; meanwhile Shaker founder Mother Ann Lee (the luminous Birgitt Huppuch) emerges as the central figure in other vignettes, many of them fraught with conflict. For while spiritual ecstasy is encouraged by this pale, pure matriarch, natural desires are denied; tensions in the community thus inevitably rise, the sect comes to depend on the destitute and the orphaned (along with hired hands), and critics and apostates attack on every side - even as a strange sense of deep perversity (the men begin to dance naked in the woods!) gradually pervades the community's shared sense of innocence.

All this cries out for a firmer narrative line, but, like the siren call of sex itself,  the demands of plot are firmly denied in Angel Reapers.  No doubt the collaborators' conceit was to mimic the spareness of the Shakers themselves; but this is one time that famous community would have been better served by something more richly embroidered.  Aiming for a poem, Clarke and company have given us a haiku that's transporting and frustrating by turns.

And have they really given the Shakers a fair shake?  Ms. Clarke has made an illustrious career out of deconstructing the sexual codes of various eras, in famous productions like The Garden of Earthly Delights and Vienna: Lusthaus.  But we feel in Angel Reapers that sometimes she's a bit of a naïf herself when it comes to the pleasures of the flesh.  After all, there is, shall we say, a case to be made against sex; and anyway, the Shakers didn't actually try to repress sex, they instead tried to channel it into ecstatic dance, into direct, personal contact with the spirit.  This is an old, old impulse - and I'm not sure it's a dishonorable one, even though, yes, sex has inevitably raised its horny, hoary old head in every monastery from Vatican City to Tibet.  And could the demands of celibacy actually have been central to the Shakers' outpouring of industry and culture? Could it have been the battery that powered their luminous achievement? Could they have had sex and still been the Shakers?  Clarke never seems to face this issue, and by the end of the evening, we desperately want her to.

Yet I can't deny that despite these flaws, Angel Reapers often glows with a rare spiritual power, and almost always casts its own haunting sense of theatrical presence. And the company - mostly dancers, btw - sing like angels, in arrangements of the familiar hymns which are subtle without seeming studied (quite a trick right there). They also deliver what text they have with a mix of transparent emotion and natural, graceful dignity that's rare even in the best professional actors. If the piece itself still calls out for further development (like many in the ArtsEmerson line-up this season, more on that in a future post), its simple gifts are nevertheless most welcome.

Birgit Huppuch, center, in the company of Angel Reapers.

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