Longtime followers of the Wooster Group may experience anxiety even before setting foot inside the Performing Garage to see Early Shaker Songs. For one thing, a dusty LP inspired the experimental ensemble’s new show, which is subtitled A Record Album Interpretation. Of course, back when their layered antics were redefining theater in the 1980s, the freewheeling Woosters spun some of their wildest and most celebrated performances out of vinyl, among them Hula in 1981 and L.S.D. (. . . Just the High Points . . .) in 1984.
This production also marks a first: Actor Kate Valk, who has long thrown her silky voice and piercing gaze into these crazy collages, tries her hand as director. (Here, that’s a role more akin to creator, given that there’s no script and the company alights on material through collaborative experiments.) There’s more role reversal: Elizabeth LeCompte, who normally calls the shots, joins a cast that includes the group’s producer, Cynthia Hedstrom; actor Frances McDormand; singer Suzzy Roche; and choreographer Bebe Miller. (All are long-standing affiliates.)
So just what is this constellation of amazing women doing on America’s original deconstructed stage? On one level, they’re channeling their sisters: The album they’re “interpreting” was recorded years back by the women of the United Society of Shakers in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. (Valk and LeCompte visited in the ’80s.) The serene tunes these ladies cover represent a kind of apex of creative expression in an austere sect that emphasizes work.
It’s not your everyday sing-along: The five primary cast members, clad in dresses (and a bonnet or two), sit or stand with stiff postures as a DJ’s turntable transmits marches and hymns from the album’s A-side. The audience never hears the record, only its spontaneous rendering; the women make no commentary, they just sing. After a long spell, they arise and dance, with male partners joining them for a series of geometric rotations and pared-down gestures.
On one hand, Early Shaker Spirituals is stripped so bare that it doesn’t feel entirely finished. (The group typically makes changes to a production over a span of years as it tours.) And when you join the admiring art crowd in the company’s venerable Soho space, you sometimes wonder if you’re on the wrong side of a private joke.
That unpolished quality, however, is what makes Wooster Group shows so interesting to watch. The performance verges on a weird transcendence, as we perceive a gap between the echoes of American puritanism and its remix on a postmodern stage.
McDormand holds the most compelling presence; it’s hard to stop watching her staring intently at the spectators as she strains to access the music entering her ear. In a late monologue, she eerily replicates the soft acquiescence of a Shaker woman recalling how she learned these spirituals from her elders in the “ironing room.” Her tone is both hollow and arresting; her head askance, she moves only her lips.
For decades, Wooster Group shows have involved continuously re-forming visual frames — slippery subjects and surfaces. Early Shaker Spirituals represents a kind of 180-degree maneuver: Has the ensemble suddenly decided ’tis a gift to be simple? As the women offer hymns to devotion, work, and humility, we smile at a provocation but have to wonder, deep down, if the Shakers knew something about making art.