“Simplicity,” my aphoristic mother-in-law used to say, sometimes with virtually no provocation, “is the keynote of elegance.” If the dear lady were still around, I’d invite her to the Wooster Group’s Early Shaker Spirituals, a performance that would confirm the veracity of that oft-cited maxim, and would entertain her socks off in the bargain.
Simplicity? Really? I can sense your incredulity, as that particular quality has seldom made itself felt in the complex, multilayered, irony-laden work that the Group has been known for over the years. But here’s a show with a Wooster pedigree—it’s directed by the troupe’s virtuoso lead performer Kate Valk and features a rare onstage appearance by longtime artistic director Elizabeth LeCompte—that eschews media, metaphor, technology or sensationalism. What you see, as they say, is what you get.
And what you get is an austere, forthright evocation, via 20 a cappella songs borrowed from a 1976 record album of Shaker music and testimony, of that early American religious sect, related to Quakerism but now nearly extinct, that celebrated sobriety, self-discipline, celibacy and divine intercession into human affairs.
Described as “a record album interpretation”—not unlike more intricate Wooster exercises such as Hula and LSD (…Just the High Points…)—this hour-long show is a kind of precision sing-along with a vinyl LP of the titular spirituals, played on a turntable by a disc jockey, stage left. LeCompte and company—she’s joined by filmdom’s Frances McDormand, performers Cynthia Hedstrom and Suzzy Roche (of the Roches), and, in the second half, Bebe Miller and some male dancing partners—start out stock still and formal, but eventually succumb to a kind of religious ecstasy as they anticipate the Second Coming: “I’ll be reeling, turning, twisting, shake out all the starch and stiffening,” one refrain goes.
On the heels of its debut at last summer at the Group’s home theatre in Manhattan, Early Shaker Spirituals runs through Feb. 1 at REDCAT in Los Angeles, followed by a Feb. 5–8 engagement at Z Space in San Francisco. Then it heads back east for an April 23–May 4 stay at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.