Directed by Martha Clarke
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
No matter how diligently humankind attempts to “reap angels,” the presumed effects of “The Fall” not only carry forward into the present but subvert any attempt for a successful journey “on to perfection” (John Wesley). “Angel Reapers” – currently running at the Pershing Square Signature Center – is a theological and psychological tour de force that exposes the underbelly of humankind’s search for meaning, stability, and salvation.
In Martha Clarke’s and Alfred Uhry’s “Angel Reapers” a cross section of the fallen find their way into the care of a “family unit” of The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing known as the Shakers at an undisclosed location in an undisclosed time. After splitting off from the Quakers, the Shakers developed a matrix of ecstatic behavior that both connected them to their Savior and protected them from the carnal desires of the world around them.
The welcomed revival of “Angel Reapers” on the stage of the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre is an important and engrossing study of the dynamics of the theological matrices of the Shakers and other faith systems, including those receiving a high profile in the current presidential election and those playing out on the international political stage (terrorist organizations supporting their gruesome activities with their faith). The play is a powerful trope for humanity’s struggle to “win” the battle between “good” and “evil.” Brother William Lee (Nicholas Bruder) explains to his sister Mother Ann Lee (Sally Murphy), “My soul is an angel. My body is a man. They are at war- man and angel.”
The outstanding ensemble cast of actors, dancers, and singers, under Martha Clarke’s inventive and assiduous direction, rehearse with chilling authenticity just how – in this repressive Shaker “family” – sublimation fails to keep at bay the repressed id and the fear and unresolved anger garnered from their lives before joining Shaker Eldress Mother Ann Lee. There is brief nudity in “Angel Reapers.” The only difficulty with the nudity here is that it is oddly and unacceptably heteronormative and sexist. In the scenes depicting human affection and intimacy, only one female actor is required to be nude and none of the men involved in these scenes is required to do so. This is unconscionable and needs to be addressed by the creative team.
When the actors portraying Sister Grace Darrow (Gabrielle Malone), former orphan Sister Mary Chase (Ingrid Kapteyn), French immigrant Sister Agnes Renard (Sophie Bortolussi), abused wife Sister Susannah Farrington (Lindsey Dietz-Marchant), former convict Sister Hannah Cogswell (Asli Bulbul) join the refrain “I fear your sweat/I curse your fingers/I hate your hot breath/I damn your manhood /And yet I feed your lust,” the audience understands just how infantilized, victimized, and indeed abused these women have become under Mother Ann Lee’s tutelage.
This is a “family” where unconditional love and forgiveness have been transplanted by shaming and shunning; where a miscarriage is seen as punishment for carnality, and where the love and affection between two men or two women is seen as sinful. A “family” where ritualized movements and dances mask the internal conflicts between superego, ego, and id. A “family” where deep-seated regret morphs into insurmountable guilt. The former farmer Brother David Darrow (Andrew Robinson) gave away his wife and his farm to God and now prays secretly, “And when I come to live with you in Paradise/Please dear lord/Give them back to me.” And a “family” where runaway slave Brother Moses (yon tande) experiences the cacophonous counterpoint of his memories of slavery with his new servitude to a different Master.
Will Brother William Lee and his sister Mother Ann Lee together be able to find the strength to “recapture heaven” when God’s only surcease is to admonish them to continue to “struggle?” If there are answers, they will be addressed in the remarkable and must see “Angel Reapers.” If there are answers indeed.