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Angel Reapers

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus

Emotion can be suppressed, but not denied. This is the prime lesson of Angel Reapers, the rich but flawed dance-theatre piece by Martha Clarke and Alfred Uhry that just opened at the Pershing Square Signature Center. Although it's technically exploring the Shakers, an 18th-century religious sect that fused progressive ideals with powerful modes of repression, anyone can find in it value for the modern day: warnings about the dangers of holding back the deepest feelings that define who we are and exerting control and influence that isn't ours to manipulate.

The overriding figure here is Mother Ann Lee (Sally Murphy), the leader of the group, who claims to have received revelation about the nature of Adam and Eve that states that sexual intercourse of any type lures men and women away from God. Imposing this precept on her fellow believers, and trying to structure a community around ignoring humankind's most elemental basic urge, works out about as well as you expect; during the 70-minute show, you'll find barely more depth and barely more plot.

That you don't need them is a testament to the accomplishment of Uhry and director-choreographer Clarke in recreating, in word, dance, and song both the society and the spirit of the Shakers. Our first encounter with them is at a worship service, where their enforced rigidity slowly gives way to the fluid, frenzied movements of an Evangelical revival meeting. (Marsha Ginsberg designed the wonderfully claustrophobic cultural-hall set, which Christopher Akerlind has conservatively lighted.) The idea is that their restrictive black-and-white clothing (by Donna Zakowska) represents who they are in the world, this behavior is who they are before God, and never the twain shall meet. And, for at least the first few scenes, as we zoom in on the individuals through Uhry's combining his own words with actual journals and other writings of the period, that seems to be the case.

Sally Murphy
Photo by Joan Marcus

But the more the creators probe, the more the more obvious it becomes that in practice things are not so simple. They dig further into the souls of the group and find that Mother's teachings are not effortlessly obeyed, especially between married heterosexual couples in love or two gay men who long for the release of their own. These are people who may want to give themselves over to God, but cannot first overcome the heat of the blood inside them, which causes new problems: As Mother's brother, William Lee (Nicholas Bruder), says, "My soul is an angel. My body is a man. They are at war—man and angel. The angel is pure. The man is strong. I fight him. I never win. Why is it so hard?"

Clarke's dances show us, juxtaposing against the quiet and pure, but longing hymns (sung a cappella) that serve as the score. (The excellent musical director is Arthur Solari.) They increase in ritualistic, even primal, fervor as the Shakers increasingly depart from their colony in favor of the passions they once thought they could leave behind. And by the climax of the evening, it's no longer possible to discern what's "real" and what's "religious" merely from the design of things; it's only Mother's ever-more-staunch opposition to the opposition around her that what's happening becomes most painfully obvious.

She can't be easy to dig into, but Murphy, a veteran of Broadway musicals (Carousel, The Wild Party) who has recently been expanding her forays into spoken theatre (she was a significant replacement in Richard Nelson's series, The Apple Family Plays), does so with aplomb. She intertwines Mother's outward starchiness with the fervent love she has for her flock so that you understand she's genuinely being driven by something beneath her conscious being and not for a naked desire for control. You come to see that Mother is terrifying precisely because she's so human, not because she's set that part of herself aside, and you must sympathize with or reject her on that basis.

Murphy, however, does not play into or acknowledge this; she's committed to letting Mother speak for and stand for herself. Even if you don't agree with her mind or her methods, you can't dismiss her out of hand—she's the real deal. Magnetic and cult-like, though she may be, she's a woman who wants and is pursuing only the best for those around her, and Murphy's illuminating every facet of her complicated psyche makes her a dynamic, riveting fulcrum for the action. It's a portrayal you won't soon be able to forget.

Unfortunately, Angel Reapers loses a great deal of this sharpness when it's instead exploring her ten acolytes. They integrate, gorgeously and hauntingly, into the dances, but they're less people than they are points to make: the orphan, Valentine Rathburn (Rico Lebron), who had no say in the life into which he's been thrust; the gay Jabez Stone (Matty Oaks), who shakes and trembles when he brushes against another man, but acknowledges the feeling's wickedness; the former convict, Hannah Cogswell (Asli Bulbul), who converted to repent for her sin; and so on. The performers execute their tasks well, but don't have the material they need to give us the strong sense of them existing outside these walls, or of the contributions they make to keep themselves and their faith alive. Thus, we don't experience what the loss of them means to their cause or to their Mother, and that's a deficit the show cannot quite recover from.

It's central to who Ann Lee is and what she wants, after all, but its meaning is only ever reflected in her eyes as they observe with horror the dissolution of all she's worked for. Murphy's astonishing, unforgiving performance conveys much of what the writing doesn't, but it's only enough to explain one person, not a people. Clarke and Uhry have guided Angel Reapers to take many good steps, but as with the Shakers themselves, it stops just short of the brilliance for which they yearn.

Angel Reapers
Through March 20
Signature Theatre Company's Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between Dyer and 10th Avenues
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