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A clear channel to the Shaker past: Woosters' 'Early Shaker Spirituals'

High-tech Woosters visit, but this time to sing gently transcendent Shaker tunes

There was no applause.

The sweet, simple songs came one after the other, performed a cappella by five accomplished women — one an established recording artist, another an award-winning actress. Yet over 23 performances last spring, the cast never heard from the audience until each evening's closing number.

It's probably a testament to the hypnotic power of the Wooster Group's "Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation." And if Angelenos react in the same way when it arrives at REDCAT on Wednesday, the silence won't offend.

"They want to listen rather than interrupt," suggests Cynthia Hedstrom, part of the singing ensemble with Frances McDormand, Suzzy Roche, Bebe Miller and Elizabeth LeCompte. One of the four men who join them for the dances in the show's second half, Andrew Schneider, suspects that the instinct to clap evaporates because the house lights never go down. "You're just in sort of a meeting house," he observes.

The director, Kate Valk, echoes the notion. "A certain covenant is struck with the audience," she says.

The religious terminology is hardly accidental. "Early Shaker Spirituals" presents 20 songs, two monologues and even the liner notes from a 1976 documentary recording of Sister R. Mildred Barker and other women of the dwindling Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake in Maine.

By sheer coincidence, Valk met Barker, who died in 1990 at 92, during a 1980 Wooster Group field trip to several Shaker villages.

The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing were dubbed Shakers by disdainful contemporaries because of their ecstatic, shuddering worship dances — "a preposterous sort of trot," snorted Charles Dickens. Under the leadership of Mother Ann Lee, they fled persecution in England in the 1780s and set up celibate, egalitarian communities in New York, New England and the Midwest. They gained renown for innovative farming techniques and spare, superbly designed furniture, and several Shaker settlements have become museums. (Sabbathday Lake is the only community still active.)

But "Early Shaker Spirituals" isn't about any of that. "We're taking a record and making a theatrical experience out of it," Valk asserts. "It's about these women, about us trying to get as close as we can to the source, which is that record."

Its prime movers were LeCompte, Wooster Group artistic director, who bought the original LP back in the '70s; Valk, who owns the recording on vinyl, tape and CD and calls it her "go-to music"; and McDormand, a regular Wooster collaborator who says she's "always been really fascinated by and drawn to" the lean Shaker aesthetic.

Having grown up in "a Christian background" — McDormand's father is a minister — she finds something comforting in "the singing, the community." And the show lets her fulfill a dream: "I've always wanted to do a musical," she says, "but I'm not a trained singer or dancer. This suits me perfectly."

Roche, a Wooster associate for 18 years, is a trained musician — the youngest of the three sisters who've performed since the '70s as the Roches. She too appreciates the raw, unpolished sound of the amateur singers of Sabbathday Lake. The root of the word "amateur," she notes, "means 'love of the thing.'"

The Wooster approach to the songs differs markedly from a singer's, and Roche finds it "endlessly fascinating." Valk describes it as a kind of channeling. "You're trying to become the thing, to get so inside of it that you're neither ahead of it nor behind it, and you're not commenting on it. You're trying to be a clear channel, so that it can pass through you. It's not listening and performing — no, no, no. The listening is the performing."

For McDormand, whose ability to become different characters has won her an Oscar ("Fargo"), a Tony ("Good People") and, most recently, a Golden Globe nomination ("Olive Kitteridge"), "the task at hand" is "being as present as possible to the room." Is it acting? "I'm acting as a conduit," she replies. "I'm acting as a megaphone. I'm not acting as a Shaker woman."

The show came together over two years in the typical, collective Wooster way. "Suzzy was working with us again," recalls Valk, "and Fran was with us. She wanted to play a Shaker and wear the bonnet. We had the right people in place."

They also had a ready-made game plan: In the '80s, LeCompte had fashioned two theatrical "interpretations" of record albums. Valk invited Hedstrom, the Wooster Group producer, to join the sessions. ("I was the right age," she remarks.)

At first, Valk says, "We just really lived with those songs, singing them over and over." She was singing too — "I love the songs, I love the content, I love the metaphor." As they worked, she continues, "It became clear who should sing what. I had to be the director 'cause the other four women were more right — their voices, everything."

Miller, whose Ohio-based dance troupe played REDCAT in 2013, was added to the mix "like a divine gift," Valk says. Taking a sabbatical from the company she founded in 1985, Miller had asked to observe Wooster Group rehearsals. The day she arrived, Valk says, "It was, 'Get in here!'" Miller took to the project immediately, likening it to "learning choreography for the voice."

The show's choreography was "made up" by Valk from "some facts and clues" but also YouTube excursions through sacred dances from other cultures. It's not meant to represent actual Shaker worship but to inject testosterone into the serene world of the older women.

That serenity may strike longtime fans of the pioneering theater company's trademark style as Wooster Group Unplugged. "Spirituals" lacks the trippy, tech-heavy feel of previous productions like "La Didone," seen at REDCAT in 2009, or "North Atlantic" (2010). But as Hedstrom, LeCompte, McDormand, Miller and Roche, in plain-Jane cotton dresses and lace-up shoes, sing these unembellished songs in unembellished unison, they will be listening to the original disc through earpieces. The audience will watch it spinning on a turntable off to the side while the sound man blends it into the audio mix in the house.

Running a recent rehearsal in the group's longtime SoHo headquarters, the Performing Garage, Valk proves herself an exacting taskmaster in her first foray into directing. More familiar to Wooster Group followers as, in the words of New York Times critic Ben Brantley, a "dazzlingly accomplished leading lady," Valk works to adjust the sound in the theater and in the earpieces; she orders the heat turned off to eliminate its hum. To ascertain the precise way two performers should be changing places, she consults the video on her laptop. And she tinkers with a dance step, asking for "more lift" and accentuating the request with an upward sweep of her arms.

"Lift," she says, "is something we talk about a lot. ... That's what theater is, really — lifting the text off the page and letting it resonate in the room. We're always looking for different strategies to do that."

Despite rumors to the contrary, she maintains, technology has not killed theater. "People like to get together with other people in a social event where there's the possibility for transcendence."

Transcendence, of course, is intrinsic to the Shaker songs — many were said to be "gifts" from otherworldly visitations. But Valk and her colleagues deny any spiritual intentions behind the show. Certainly there are no spiritual intentions behind the trip to L.A. Hedstrom mentions how much the troupe likes performing there "in January or February, when it's freezing cold in New York." Hedstrom, reverting to producer mode, adds, "Touring helps pay company salaries."

And if the REDCAT audience bursts into applause when McDormand finishes her solo rendition of the prayerful "I Hunger and Thirst," or after the group delivers "Come Life, Shaker Life," the model for a Richie Havens song in the '60s, and "Tis the Gift to Be Simple," the 1848 tune that Aaron Copland borrowed for "Appalachian Spring," Valk says she won't mind.

"It might lift [the show] even higher."

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