The ensemble of the Wooster Group’s Early Shaker Spirituals, featuring Frances McDormand (center), performs some ecstatic dancing toward the end of the hour-long show. Below: The show’s core women singers (from left) Elizabeth Lecompte, Suzzy Roche, McDormand and Cynthia Hedstrom. Photos by Paula Cort
If, as they say, ’tis the gift to be simple, then Early Shaker Spirituals is truly gifted.
Just what is this show exactly? Is it an hourlong piece of documentary theater about songs sung (and danced) by the Shakers, an offshoot of the Quakers? Is it a simply staged concert in which four women sing along with a record album? Is it some avant garde comment on simplicity and spirituality by New York’s famed Wooster Group? Yes, yes and yes.
If you happen to be going to this sold-out touring production now at Z Space, first of all, lucky you. It is, first and foremost, a highly enjoyable experience that, in its way, also finds a way to challenge its audience. Here’s what you’re in for: four women dressed in simple Shaker garb (long print dresses, sensible shoes) are gathered. Because The Wooster Group has subtitled this “a record album interpretation,” it should come as no surprise that the women – via high-tech earpieces – are listening to the album “Early Shaker Spirituals” being played on a record player over at the sound booth. They sing along to side one of the 1976 album (the recordings were made in the ’60s and ’70s), and a narrator (Jamie Poskin, reads the album’s liner notes and talks briefly about the origins of the songs. Occasionally the women – Cynthia Hedstrom, Elizabeth LeCompte, Frances McDormand and Suzzy Roche – shift position in their cluster, but mostly they just sing. And it’s beautiful.
These are older women with interesting voices. Other than Roche (one third of the Roches), who could sing all night and hold the audience in her thrall, none of the voices is likely to win a televised singing contest, and that makes their singing all the more wonderful.
The women sing 17 songs and recite two of the album’s spoken-word tracks describing aspects of the song and song culture among the Shakers. Then, the women are joined by younger men in contemporary garb – Max Bernstein, Matthew Brown, Modesto Flako Jimenez, Bobby McElver and Andrew Schneider – to add dancing to their singing. It’s a patterned, ecstatic kind of circle dancing – lots of spinning and stomping – and it elevates the show from a sort of NPR special report come to life into a modest spectacle suffused with joy.
There’s no question that this is an odd show. Because these are performers and not actual Shakers (by 2012 there were only three Shakers left), we’re given to interpret their work rather than simply appreciate it. This is Shaker simplicity examined and exalted by artists for the enjoyment, education and, perhaps, puzzlement of others. It’s an interesting thing to think about while you’re watching the show: in life, these songs are ingrained in everyday spirituality, touchstones for believers to connect to other believers and that which they believe is bigger than them all. On a stage, it’s also musical theater, complete with choreography, sound, set and lighting design and an Academy Award-winning familiar face in a bonnet. It’s unreal and real at the same time, a delicious theatrical duality.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Wooster Group’s Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation continues through Sunday, Feb. 8 at Z Space, 450 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $50 (and all shows are sold out). Call 866-811-4111 or visit www.zspace.org.