Friday, January 23, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "All Shook Up" (on The Wooster Group's "Early Shaker Spirituals")

all shook up

by Douglas Messerli


The Wooster Group Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interetation / the performance I saw as at Redcat (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) at Disney Hall, Los Angeles, January 22, 2015

In the Wooster Group’s new production of Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation, it appears that the company has, if not reached a kind of crossroads, has perhaps paused to reconsider their direction. Unlike many such experimentally-based theatrical companies, whose major activities included deconstructing major and minor theatrical works, the Wooster Group have generally layered their productions of “classical” works with technological elements (videos, multiple cameras, radio and phonographic soundtracks, and various other aural additions)—most apparent in productions such as Tennessee Williams Vieux Carré, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (retitled Cry, Trojans!), and North Atlantic—or with seemingly conflicting genres, such as the mash-up of opera and grade-B films in La Didone. Yet they have also done several productions of American classics by Eugene O’Neill, in particular, in which they have peeled away the layers of literary varnish that have accrued revealing in the early O’Neill sea plays, The Hairy Ape, and The Emperor Jones a vitality that had long been lost. And it is in this tradition, with a truly stark and unornamented “recreation” of art that Early Shaker Spirituals falls.

     But here, in a new way that is not apparent in their other works, this important American institution seems to have moved further in a direction that questions and challenges the ironic sensibility that seems present in some of their previous productions. At moments, the narration almost plays with the potential of the ironic, beginning with the male introducer (Jamie Poskin) who contextualizes the performances we are about to encounter. Nothing that the group has already “recreated” extant records, including Hula and L.S.D, the current recreation of recordings made by the Shakers in 1965, 1970, and 1976, potentially might be another “jumping off spot” for a series of reevaluations of US culture. Yet, once the quaintly dressed women singers—Cynthia Hedstrom, Elizabeth LeCompte, Frances McDormand, Bebe Miller, and Suzzy Roche—begin their series of 20 early Shaker spirituals, we recognize that whatever humor exists in the work existed already in the minds of the original creators. For the most part, these are pure creations of love and commitment to God, based on a life of “bending, reeling, winding, linking, and intertwining their human ways” with those of the Holy Spirit.

    Yes, a DJ like figure does play, on the side and in back of the action, the record itself, snatches of which we can hear after the singers have performed and which, we quickly perceive, they themselves are listening to as they sing “along” to the original works. But these technological additions (if, in their simplicity, can even described that way) serve simply as markers and musical cues (how do you sing a capaella on pitch without a pitch pipe?) rather than representing another layer between the performers and audience. Indeed, the actors appear to be attempting to render their simple songs in the same amateur (arising from the pleasure and love of singing rather than a professional ability) manner as the original Shaker singers. This is particularly notable when Frances McDormand explains the origins of one of the songs, pausing, interrupting herself, and a retelling the story in a way that is meant to perfectly imitate the original on the recording. 
     Like the starkly simple set and their homespun costumes, the performers are clearly attempting to duplicate the original, to create a mimetic image, rather than to comment on or given greater significance to the original. If these figures occasionally exchange private glances, share brief phrases of conversation and rather formally exchange positions with each other, it is not meant as commentary as much as it is to suggest that the Shaker originals recognized themselves as apart from the community before whom they were performing. From our contemporary viewpoint, these women are quaint outsiders, slightly strange. But by bridging that gap, they are attempting, if nothing else, to communicate their values to us. Accordingly, the Wooster Group performers are in the strange position of existing on our side of reality, while attempting to project something other.

     This is made even more apparent when, in the second part of the program, the women gather to dance to some of the very same songs which they have just sung. One of the major elements of Shaker religious ceremonies, and part of the reason why they were described as “shakers,” their dances are highly formalized combinations of hand gestures and movements of their feet, which, given the beautiful lyrics and the rhythms of the songs, completely transform and help to reveal that what we have aurally experienced in Elder Joseph’s beautiful anthem to simplicity as it is completely transformed by dance, when suddenly the “coming down,” the “bow and the bend,” and the “turning, turning” is literalized:

                            'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
                               'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
                             And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
                                'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

                            When true simplicity is gain'd,
                               To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
                            To turn, turn will be our delight,
                                Till by turning, turning we come 'round right.

In this second portion, moreover, the Shaker past is reintegrated with our present, as the male dancers, dressed in modern costume, move in an outer ring which, although continues to segregate them from the women of the past, still brings them together through and space, the “you” being joined with the “I,” or the “them” with the “us”—as it necessarily must be since, presumably, the dances are a respectful “re-creation,” a stylized imaginative “reconstruction” of actual Shaker dancers, rather than, like the songs, a faithful imitation.
     In short, in presenting Early Shaker Spirituals the group is no longer attempting to reconceive a theatrical event of the past, nor even to revitalize it, but to respectfully reiterate it, exploring the songs and dances for what they originally offered rather than reimagining how they might now mean for us. 
    The quietude of the audience throughout these songs and dances suggests not only a certain awe of the beautiful simplicity of the works but represents a recognition of the distance between ourselves and the art we are encountering. But it is just that distance, that awe of something slightly removed from ourselves that, when we ultimately perceive it as still having so much meaning, results in the final release of joyful applause. If the Shakers saw it as a religious experience, today we describe that, more often, as art.
     Given the various directions the Wooster Group has moved over its glorious existence since 1975, it would be absurd to attempt to describe what might be expected in their future works; but it is clear that at least some of their members have found new meaning in the original art without needing to overlay it with contemporary innovations and irony.

Los Angeles, Januaary 21, 2015