[Note: This review pertains to the 2014 production at the Performing Garage. The production has now returned for a second encore run]
Theater review by Helen Shaw
A supremely gentle, recessive piece, the Wooster Group’s Early Shaker Spirituals may not actually be a piece. Better call it work; each night a labor completed—yet also left unperfected for the next day’s doing (a Shakerish ethos of tempering pride in product). Despite the introduction by a cheerful Jamie Poskin (who reads Daniel W. Patterson’s liner notes between songs), director Kate Valk offers little interpretation of the eponymous Sabbathday Lake field recording. First: Downtown elders Cynthia Hedstrom, Liz LeCompte, Frances McDormand and Suzzy Roche channel the 1976 LP by using earbuds to resing the recording, false starts and all. Later, there’s an outpouring of pure joy: uninhibited dancing.
The austerity refreshes like cool water. No text but the record sleeve, no sound but the invocation of long-ago, creaky-voiced Shakers. The women, beautifully severe, don’t even “perform,” beyond looking gravely at the audience. The Wooster gospel has ever been complex, sophisticated and arch. Early Shaker Spirituals has such simplicity and vulnerability, I was surprised to find that they’re charging money; it has so much the aura of a proffered gift.
THE BOTTOM LINE An old album furnishes the Wooster Group with hushed and holy material.
Performing Garage (see Off Broadway). By Sister R. Mildred Barker and Daniel W. Patterson. Directed by Kate Valk. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 20mins. No intermission.