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Passion, repression and the Shakers

Sex. Shakers. Those words, for me, would have remained forever incongruous had I not started to follow the evolution of "Angel Reapers," the thought-provoking, powerful -– and, for some, perhaps, disturbing -– theatre piece that will play for one night only at Proctors on Oct. 21.

The provocative show received its world premiere earlier this month at The Moore Theater of the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College; the Hop is located near an important center for Shaker culture, the Enfield (N.H.) Shaker Museum. Following the performance at Proctors arts and entertainment complex in downtown Schenectady, the show continues to ArtsEmerson: The World On Stage (Boston) before opening at the Joyce Theatre in New York City.

"Angel Reapers" is inspired by the life of Ann Lee, founder of the Shaker movement. Mother Ann, as she came to be known, was a visionary, mystic and powerful spiritual leader. Her categorical denial of sexuality and determination to erase it from herself and her followers inspires the stunning and rhythmic choreography in "Angel Reapers."

The plot is woven throughout with movement, song and dance to bring to life this extraordinary 18th century woman and the singular world she created. This multi-disciplinary piece is not biographical in the usual sense, but more loosely constructed, slipping in and out of reality and embracing Ann’s visions and those of her followers

The advance buzz on "Angel Reapers" on Proctors' website posits the question, "what do you get when you combine Pulitzer-, Tony- and Academy Award-winning writer Alfred Uhry, MacArthur genius director/choreographer Martha Clarke, traditional Shaker music, and sexual repression? Audiences will experience the answer firsthand in what a Proctors press release promises to be an event to mesmerize its audience with a stunning evening of theatre.

I had the good fortune to be invited by Proctors to join its van full of area writers and bloggers for a sneak preview of "Angel Reapers" in New York City. Our goal was to meet the cast and its award-winning choreographer/director Martha Clarke at a rehearsal of the show. It was she who greeted us with gracious warmth. There was never a doubt, however, about her command of the space and event unfolding around her. Her petite frame belied the massive sweep of theatrical accomplishments that comprise her reputation as a living, theatre legend.

There is no room here to offer an historic overview of the Shakers, but I do want to lay a foundation from which to offer my perspective of the play. The Shakers were a small religious group founded in England that moved to America to set up shop in the late 1700s, early 1800s. They were (note the past tense, please) known for many wonderful things — furniture, farming, equality for women, and virtues to be respected by any society.

They were also known for one other virtue: Celibacy. I’m not speaking about an individual opting to make celibacy a personal life choice. On the contrary, the entire Shaker society vowed to remain celibate. No sex. Not for fun, not for reproduction. Can’t look, can’t touch. Ever.

Therein is the problem that doomed the Shakers: without Big Shakers having fun, there will be no Little Shakers. (If only finding out what made the dinosaur extinct were so easy.)

How did the Shakers collectively grow in the 1800s if there were no homegrown Little Shakers? They routinely adopted children into their lifestyle and enforced compliance with their don’t-ask, don’t-tell, don’t- even think-about-it policy. They took in orphans and coerced them into accepting their sexual mores. Through no choice of their own, kids became teens became adults, and were forced to abide by a vow of celibacy.

Feel the tension growing?

Eventually, the state regulated adoption, the supply line to the Shaker community shut off, and the fabulous communities they developed dwindled to museum status today.

Enter "Angel Reapers."

"Angel Reapers" is a carefully constructed and deeply thought perspective on the sexual frustration that one can only imagine built up in such a society: a society of men and women living and sleeping next to one another, in a completely hands-off atmosphere. Can’t look, can’t touch. Ever.

Feel the tension growing?

One critic noted that Clarke and Uhry keep the balance between spiritual expression and sexual repression on a taut wire ... the dancers are superb, and they can, and do, act. They also sing beautifully. The dancing we saw at rehearsal was awesome, reminiscent of Irish foot dances, combined with authentic chants eerily similar to what one might assume were heard at the Salem witch trials.

All performed, of course, with the faces and voices of angels.

But these characters are no angels.

The Shakers were also missionaries, but in this play you will see another type of missionary.

"Angel Reapers" is for the sophisticated theatergoer; for those who love the art of performance -- and the excitement of exploration that only the safety of living theatre can provide. Mature audience of 15-plus is recommended.

As a special treat, Proctors has scheduled a TheatreTalk with the illustrious Martha Clarke at 11 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 21.

Most noted for her multidisciplinary approach to theatre, dance and opera productions, Ms. Clarke will offer a talk that, although open to all, may be of special interest to area dance students, artists and teachers. Attendees can expect to learn about her career, her work as a choreographer and avant garde creator of whole new theatre works, as well as her role as director of operas and plays in the classic repertoire, such as the stage works of Mozart and Shakespeare.

Even when serving as director in productions of well-known classics, her approach is frequently unconventional and ambitious. A 1990 recipient of the MacArthur Award (popularly known as the "genius grant"), she also received the 2010 Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement. The award is considered the most important lifetime award for choreographers.

The Oct. 21 TheatreTalk session is free and groups are welcomed. RSVP required by Oct. 14. Contact Christine Sheehan at 518-382-3884 x112. Certainly, I plan to be there and to see this performance at Proctors.

Richard DiMaggio is editor/publisher of, a weekly online compendium of fun stuff to do from all over the county. He is a frequent visitor to Downtown Schenectady and to Proctors.

For more on Proctors, click here.

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