Frances McDormand sings a Shaker spiritual at Redcat. Photos: Iris Schneider
In our modern times, when you can hardly spend five minutes without looking at a smartphone, watching a TV or reading a tweet, it felt downright restorative to spend an hour with Wooster Group at Redcat as the troupe channeled the simple spirituals of the Shaker sect. The program, called "Early Shaker Spirituals," was the third Wooster production that has a recording at its core. But the previous two, Hula dances and an enactment of Timothy Leary's recording called "LSD," were probably not treated as reverently as this one.
On a relatively bare stage, save for an austere Little House on the Prairie set of three wooden chairs around a window, four women dressed in simple cotton frocks and wearing sensible shoes sang along to the faint sounds of the recording of 20 Early Shaker Spirituals. If it weren't for the audio equipment strapped around their waists, and the modern earpieces they wore, you could easily imagine these serious women having just returned from their daily chores.
Earnestly sung in less than perfect voices, the songs extolled the virtue of the simple life lived by the Shakers, a celibate 18th-century sect known more for its furniture than its music. The most recognizable of the songs, "Tis a Gift to be Simple," tooks its place along with "The Gospel is Advancing" and "Come life, Shaker life," some of the 10,000 the sect is said to have written, in the evening's program. The songs extol the sanctity of work "consecrated to spiritual labor." But dance also has its place: "reeling, turning, shifting, take out all the starch and stiffening."
The women included Elizabeth LeCompte, Cynthia Hedstrom and Bebe Miller, all longtime Wooster Group regulars, along with Suzzy Roche of the Roche sisters and actress Frances McDormand. They were joined for the finale by four young men who reprised some of the earlier songs in oddly ecstatic folk dances as they joyously jumped and twirled around the stage.
Most affecting were two remembrances more spoken than sung, by Roche and McDormand, that paid homage to two women, Sister Mildred and Sister Paulina Springer, and the Shaker life they chose. Like each of the songs in the program, they were spoken seriously and respectfully, but in doing so the renditions exposed something very deep and profound about the life and lives of these Shaker women.
Frances McDormand and Suzzy Roche