The Shakers, a sub-division of the English Quakers, arrived in this country in the late 18th Century and established a number of communities in protest to the more accepted Christian doctrines. They dressed simply, practiced extreme sexual abstinence while following a strict regimen of worship and chores, eventually—perhaps, inevitably—fading into near extinction.
The audience for Angel Reapers is immediately immersed in the Shaker world, forced to cross the set—simple board floors, ladder-back chairs, a couple of windows and doors—en route to the seats. Several cast members are already in place. As more characters saunter on and take their seats, men and women on opposite sides, an infectious laughter spreads improbably through the cast before hymns are sung and a long list of proscribed activities is chanted. They also express delight in the “gifts” they contribute: “I have the gift of gathering eggs;” “I have the gift of reaping hay;” etc.
They repeatedly move about the stage en masse in strange, jittery parades that slowly evolve into passing lines and circles in which they take great pains not to touch. There were many telling details: a limp wrist, clenched fists, stomping feet, passionate leaps and falls, whirls that raised the skirts and caused men to lose their hats, rolling heads and furtive touches and looks. A slow, forbidden dance between a man and a woman slides hotly into an explicit sexual encounter while pantomimed chores takes two men into lustful, but ultimately aborted sex.
Soon we learn their—mostly sad—back stories. Mother Ann Lee, the Eldress (Sally Murphy) suffered stillbirth after stillbirth before experiencing her life-changing religious revelations joined by her equally dedicated brother, William Lee (Nicholas Bruder) whose sexual attraction to his sister is as much a driving force as his passionate religious conviction.
There’s Brother Jabez Stone (Matty Oaks) who can barely control his homosexual urges; Brother David Darrow (Andrew Robinson), a farmer and his dutiful wife, Grace (Gabrielle Malone) who misses the pleasures of the bed; Sister Agnes Renard (Sophie Bortolussi) who lost her three-year old daughter on the torturous trans-Atlantic trip to the new world; Sister Hannah Cogswell (Asli Bulbul), a former convict and Sister Susannah Farrington (Lindsey Dietz-Marchant), an abused wife, who were both taken in by Sister Ann; Brother Valentine Rathburn (Rico LeBron), an orphan raised by Shakers, who rebels in words and actions; another orphan, Sister Mary Chase (Ingrid Kapteyn), who keeps blaming herself for her sexual longings; and Brother Moses (Yon Tande), a run-away slave taken in by Shakers.
All the cast members were terrific, totally immersed in their characters through movement, acting and beautiful singing—performed without accompaniment—with Ms. Murphy particularly heavenly, her eyes gleaming as she sang.
Marsha Ginsberg’s scenic design and Donna Zakowska’s costume design combined with Christopher Akerlind’s lights to produce one perfect stage picture after another.
Ms. Clarke directed with an eye for every telling detail.
Angel Reapers (through March 20, 2016)
Linney Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-388-8113 or visit http://www.signaturetheatre.org
Running time: 70 minutes with no intermission