Who knew that the famous song that begins, TIS A GIFT TO BE SIMPLE (which was recalibrated by Aaron Copland for his Appalachian Suite) could lead lyrically into such “love and delight.” The Shakers knew.
Certainly the spirit of the Shakers was channeled Thursday night at Los Angeles’ REDCAT Theater. in the movements of New York’s famed Wooster Group. Their interpretation of a Rounder record album EARLY SHAKER SPIRITUALS (1976) included with Shaker songs monologues as well as marches and dances inspired by research and early photographs.
Are there Shakers anymore?
The only remaining active Shaker community in the United States is Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in Maine, which as of 2012 had only three members: Sister June Carpenter, Brother Arnold Hadd, and Sister Frances Carr. It was here that the album EARLY SHAKER SPIRITUALS was recorded.
In 1980, Elizabeth LeCompte, Kate Valk and other company members visited the Sabbathday Lake Shaker community and Sister R. Mildred Barke, and began listening to the album that forms the basis for this piece.
The Wooster Group has a history of reinterpreting Record Albums, among them HULA (1981) and L.S.D. with Timothy Leary- the album that grew into the marvelous LSD…JUST THE HIGH POINTS…)(1984). ( A mash-up of a Millbrook Memoir and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.)
In this production, performers, listening to the original acappella songs and interviews (audible only to the players) sang and spoke in unison with the recorded voices of the women of the Shaker Community in Sabbathday Lake, Maine,
Often moving, never dull, it was like many Wooster Group shows I’ve seen: one part revelation/religious experience, one part friends playing oddly on stage, one part coup de theatre goof. The Wooster Group has been one of NYC’s leading experimental theater troupes since the mid-1970s when Spalding Grey and Willem Dafoe stomped on their Ohio Theater stages on Wooster Street in Soho.
The evening’s emcee Jamie Poskin. displayed vinyl LPs with titles like “LSD” and “HULA”, to the audience. Handing the SHaker album to a deejay to play on his upstage turntable, Poskin announced that “tonight we will be performing all of side A”. The record droned quietly in the background, audible only to the player.
After each song, he read us the album notes. It struck a droll tone.
As a cue in, the album and actors sang the last lines of the previous hypnotic Shaker song before starting the next song. The bleed through,a smart piece of staging ,created both a lyrical link from song to song, and a sense of the album’s programming, while conjuring up decades of music lovers putting albums on for friends and replaying passages to illustrate why this album was so hip.
Four women sat pertly on the stage dressed like Shakers, a celibate religious movement persecuted and run out of England in the 1770s, who settled in Maine and upstate New York, eventually founding 18 settlements with six thousand members.
In 1747 women assumed leadership roles within the sect ( known as “Shaking Quakers” because of their ecstatic behavior during worship) notably Jane Wardley and Mother Ann Lee.
In 1774, the original six males and three females (including Mother Lee) traveled from Liverpool to the New World. They spent their voyage dancing and singing to the Spirit, to the dismay of the ship’s captain .
How did they interpret the songs on the LP? Wearing headphones that fed the vocals into their ears, the women (including actresses Frances McDormand, founder Elizabeth LeCompte, Bebe Miller, Cynthia Hedstrom, and pop singer Suzzy Roche) delivered the goods: Hymns, Gift Songs and Marches, dubbing live what they heard like some post-modern karaoke party game.
The audience experienced a dual vision: the sense of an enthused hipster friend playing and replaying his favorite album cut for you AND a anthropological field trip watching visitors from another planet demonstrating their cultural folkways. My buddy said he felt like Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson observing the hidden rituals of some alien tribe.
“It’s a Gift To Be Simple” is the lyric of their best known song- aptly staged on a simple set of 4 chairs, a window frame, aluminum siding, The lights never changed.
The group of women came and went, occassionally changing seats. Sitting on straight back chairs, hand in their laps, the singers idlely gazed at the audience while demonstrating their songs.
Unrecognizable in her drab shaker garb, Suzzy Roche anchored the singing. With her hair skinned back, she showed the stern features of an early American settler. Facing us in her chair, her eyes as gimlet bright as a bird, she kept watch on the goings on, hyper-vigilent as a wild thing. The practiced singer of vocal group The Roches, pulled out the HIgh keening vocal crack of mountain singers. But like the rest of the cast she kept it simple.
Frances McDormand gave an inward performance. Her softened expressions placed her deep in the songs, Her pigeon- toed body was collapsed, her hands softly curled on her long skirts; she was a modest person , dong her duty, attempting to remain focussed while letting strangers watch her devotion.
Elizabeth LeCompte,Cynthia Hedstrom and Bebe Miller, dressed in dun gingham, aprons and Oxford shoes sang solos and choral versions of the repetitive lyrics and danced their fascinating processions and shuffling marches.
As the album notes explained, Songs were ‘received’ by worshippers struck by faith. or ‘Gifted’ to the community by spirits like the comical “Little Shepardess” and ‘Laughing John” (Who brought a Wine song.) Most were taught by oral tradition and remained for centuries in the community songbook.
Eventually cast members Bebe Miller Matthew Brown, Modesto Jimenez, Bobby McElver and Andrew Schneider joined them onstage, for the finale-a repeat of some of the songs set to marches and spinning dances.
One thing for sure: they sure did shake. Like the Quakers quaked, the Shakers shook.
Shaking is a part of all devotional trance and ecstatic religions: Korean Shamans and Condomble and Voodun celebrants, people ridden by gods in various cultures. Charismatics and Evangelicals shake. Black Southern Baptists and Methodists ‘get sanctified’. The Shakers also spin like Sufi.
THE SONGS: Some songs were from Enfield New Hampshire. others from Maine.
The titles of their songs: “I hunger and thirst,” “Little children,” and “I will walk with my children” evoked a Shaker’s lyric sheet full of words like “love” and “fire” and “freedom,” returning to these themes again and again.
Some songs were “exercises”, others referred to embodying Christ. Humility reigns.
One song was described as “a parody of Shakers…performed by apostates.” Another song, “Bow down, O Zion” revealed another humble awakening.
“I’ll spend and be spent” described a spiritual labor a Shaker would undergo in service to their faith. A sacrifice. In another, the sacrifice was more literal with words like “the devil” and “fire” and “the wine of power/falls like a shower”. “Down in the Valley” evoked the humble Shaker life of 1849. “Down in the lowly vale” seemed a short lullaby that could be sung to a child, though no children present or mentioned.’Littel Children” had passages of nonsense syllables “Lo loddidlle loddle Loh.
The rousing “The gospel is advancing” was described as a rare “hymn”. “The only one.”
With Freedom I”m delighted
I will not feel affrighted
Come let us be united
and sound the Jubilee
The bands of sin are breaking
the Devil’s KIngdom is shaking
and his foundation quaking
because we will be free.
Such humility in these tunes, such pride in their devotion.
One song described “an eternal interview” that awaited the faithful after they met their maker.
Another ESS (early shaker spiritual) called “I looked and lo a lamb”, drawn directly from the Book of Revelations, and mentioned “144 thousand people” with God’s name carved in their foreheads (the critical mass?) and how after these 144 thousand were lifted up from the earth, they became “followers of the lamb.”These are the virgins, These are the virgins” intones its chorus.
The record also included two interviews.Frances McDormand performed a passage about learning songs. In her careful Maine accent she described Sister Lucinda Taylor, who at 85 years old, climbed atop the laundry table to teach the younger women songs.
Commanding Suzze Roche performed a powerful monologue recounting her last visit with the dying elder sister Paulina Springer. As a young woman she served Sister Springer for two years. As she was dying (“we all knew she wouldn’t last past noon”) members lined up to visit her. She was the last in line. ‘promise me one thing” said the elder, ‘Promise me you’ll become a Shaker”, “At that moment I would have promised her anything, It took me years to understand that promise and fulfill it.” Powerful.
In a sense Wooster returned us to the world roots of theatre as religious ceremony.
My buddy Hank said “he felt like he was intruding, invading an intimate tribal ritual.”
With “none of the acoutrement of sacredness one associates with religious movements:candles, incense, smoke, costume, lights, was it sacred?”
He suggested “It was almost anti-sacred in how a modern theatrical troupe presented it: songs piped into their heads repeated back to an audience” yet he felt blessed to be able to share in it.
The male dancers seemed an afterthought. They did energize the stage momentarily and made for a full final stage picture, but the depth of the five actress’s concentration, and the pact we felt with them, seemed diminished by the additional players.
Hank found the men’s clothes too modern and asked one of the actors(Modesto Flako Jimenez) why. Modesto explained,:”We looked at old pictures of how they dressed.” But surely the modern pants and short-sleeve shirts of some of his co-players weren’t the look in the 19th century? “As if to say,” he continued, “What ARE hipsters?”
Hank described being overwhelmed by past Wooster Group performances like in 1984s “NORTH ATLANTIC,” which more than satirizing “SOUTH PACIFIC,” took on the American military industrial complex with such a punch (Ron Vawter playing the corrupt leader with spools of tape unravelling out of his pants as he lied to the young recruit Willem Dafoe, who kept trying to stay in his good graces by explaining he was “A booster! I’m a builder!” After that show, the audience didn’t applaud, as I recall, they sat stunned in their seats — I heard a man near me exhale, “oh my gawd”–and then burst into thunderous cheering)
But in this show, they seemed to undercut it by bringing four men on stage and doing some silly dizzying spins and miming a jazz quartet.
The Wooster Group’s touring technical director, Eric Dyer, explained that bringing on the men and that movement, “brought the energy of the show up at the end.”
Hank replied “I understand that. But I’m not sure the show needed it. I sure didn’t need it. My energy was right there with the Shaker women. I was just about shaking deep inside myself. Because them Shakers surely shook. They were shaking all over, shaking off “starch and stiffening” from their dresses as they sat, stiff as the boards below them.
Performed by CYNTHIA HEDSTROM, ELIZABETH LECOMPTE, FRANCES MCDORMAND, SUZZY ROCHE, and BEBE MILLER; with MATTHEW BROWN, MODESTO FLAKO JIMENEZ, BOBBY MCELVER, JAMIE POSKIN, and ANDREW SCHNEIDER. Directed by KATE VALK.
REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater)
631 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012
WED 1/21-SUN 2/1
TUES- SAT 8:30 PM
Sunday Matinees 3:00PM
Call the REDCAT box office to purchase at 213-237-2800.