It’s hard to imagine a cultural practice more ideologically divorced from our globalized age of the handheld digital device than the 19th-century millennialist utopianism of the Shakers. Or at least that’s one takeaway from Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation, the Wooster Group’s strangely haunting and revelatory homage to the music of the all-but-extinct religious sect (as of 2011, only three were still extant).
Taking a break from their familiar tours de force of textual deconstruction and high-tech metatheatrics, Wooster performers Cynthia Hedstrom, Elizabeth LeCompte, Frances McDormand and Suzzy Roche (in Mother Hubbards by costumer Enver Charkartash) deliver exactly what the title promises: an almost straightforwardly simple, concertlike recital of a 1976 album of Shaker hymns recorded by the community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine.
“Almost” being the operative adverb. Despite the apparent faithfulness of the ensemble’s delicately quivering a cappella renditions or the wooden, tintype authenticity of director Kate Valk’s stage pictures, the hourlong production slyly never lets us forget that it is a performance of a performance. Company deejay Max Bernstein visibly — and audibly — plays the album tracks for the singers over wireless headsets.
Frances McDormand, center right
But it is the very austerity and rigorous minimalism of the show that eventually takes hold. Beginning with vaguely familiar hymns that are reminiscent of monodic Appalachian folk songs, the piece locks in with “Simple Gifts,” the 1848 Shaker work song famously “borrowed” by Aaron Copland as the melody for Appalachian Spring. With the addition of eerie harmonies and then, in the evening’s finale, reconstructed Shaker dances, Early Shaker Spirituals soars beyond a canny ethnomusicological evocation to become something more deeply poignant and wonderfully enchanting.
Tuesdays-Sundays. Starts: Jan. 21. Continues through Feb. 1, 2015