'Early Shaker Spirituals': Theater Review

Early Shaker Spirituals Production Still - H 2015
Steven Gunther

Early Shaker Spirituals Production Still - H 2015

Although performed with uncanny exactitude, this experimental musical theater piece is easier to admire than enjoy

Oscar winner Frances McDormand reunites with the Wooster Group to replicate a 1976 recording of 19th-century hymns sung by Shaker women.

Venerable experimental theater troupe the Wooster Group has long specialized in technology-driven, anarchic reconstructions of classic works. So it's a bit disconcerting to witness the company's latest production, Early Shaker Spirituals, a (mostly) irony-free presentation of 19th-century hymns and marches as originally recorded by Shaker women living in Sabbathday Lake, Maine, released by Rounder Records in 1976. Subtitled A Record Album Reinterpretation, this is as austere and unaffected as the spiritual music it reproduces. It's currently receiving a brief encore engagement at Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse after previous runs in Manhattan, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Not that the show is entirely breaking from the company's history. The Wooster Group has taken a similar approach in such productions as 1981's Hula and 1984's L.S.D. (…Just the High Points…). It also has a long provenance, since artistic director Elizabeth LeCompte, who appears in the show, and fellow founding member Kate Valk, who directs, traveled to Maine in 1980 and met with Sister R. Mildred Barker, one of the singers on the album.

Nor is the production technology-free, despite its minimalistic set, featuring little more than a wooden panel as a backdrop, some stools and chairs, and a standing lamp. The performers are fed the recording via earpieces, eerily replicating the original vocals as if they were in a 19th-century karaoke bar.

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The core ensemble is an impressive lot indeed, including LeCompte (making a rare acting appearance); the group's producer Cynthia Hedstrom; Suzzy Roche, of the sibling vocal trio The Roches; and a genuine Oscar-winner, longtime company member Frances McDormand.

Clad in traditional Shaker dresses and, in McDormand's case, a bonnet, the quartet performs the entirety of the album's A-side, including such songs as "'Tis the Gift to be Simple," "I Will Walk With My Children" and "Bow Down, O Zion." Roche and McDomand also deliver recitations of interviews with the original singers, who describe how they learned these songs passed down in oral tradition. A clean-cut young man, Jamie Poskin, introduces the songs by reading from the original liner notes, including such explanations as "This may have originally been sung with symbolic gestures." Visible In the background is a DJ spinning the record, snippets from which are briefly heard.

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There's little physical movement, with the performers occasionally shifting positions but mostly standing or sitting impassively with stone-faced expressions. McDormand is particularly effective in this regard, her dour countenance seemingly channeling the female subject of the Grant Wood painting American Gothic.

Following the songs, the four women are joined by choreographer Bebe Miller and a quartet of young men, incongruously looking like Williamsburg hipsters, to perform a series of traditional Shaker dances.

As with many Wooster Group ventures, the show is more intriguing in its conception than execution. One certainly admires the fierce commitment of the performers in their replication of the musical material, as well as their obvious affinity for the artistic purity and communal bonding of the Shakers. But even with its brief, 50-minute running time, the evening soon feels dull and repetitious, making one grateful that it covers only one side of the album. And despite the exactingly precise nature of her performance, McDormand proves a distraction, with one's attention inevitably drawn to her familiar face.  

Oh, there is one song from the album's B-side included, providing a fitting end for the show with a rendition of "We Will All Go Home with You." It feels almost heretical to say it, but it couldn't have come too soon.   

Cast: Cynthia Hedstrom, Elizabeth LeCompte, Frances McDormand, Bebe Miller, Suzzy Roche, Max Bernstein, Matthew Brown, Modesto Flako Jimenez, Bobby McElver, Jamie Poskin, Andrew Schneider
Director: Kate Valk
Set designers: Elizabth LeCompte, Jim Clayburgh|
Lighting designers: Jennifer Tipton, Ryan Seelig
Costume designers: Enver Chakartah, Naomi Raddatz
Sound designers: Bobby McElver, Max Bernstein
Presented by The Wooster Group, St. Ann's Warehouse