One of the exciting things about the long, distinguished history of the Wooster Group is its questioning, sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, of what is theatre. Of course one also admires their constant, courageous experimentation in an era of safe theatre.
At the beginning of A RECORD ALBUM INTERPRETATION OF EARLY SHAKER SPIRITUALS, the young narrator tells us that the performers will be singing Side A of an lp album of Shaker spirituals performed by women of The United Society of Shakers, Sabbathday Maine. Between songs, the narrator reads descriptions from the liner notes of the album. Four women dressed in Shaker costumes are on stage, three in seats by a small window, a fourth standing upstage. There's a harsh contrast between the plain outfits and the modern technological apparatus the women carry as accessories: transmitters, receivers, earphones and microphones, a collision between a performed past and contemporary technology that is common to many Wooster Group performances. An engineer puts the needle on the vinyl record and the women sing along with what they hear through their earphones. Like the women on the recording, the four performers, Cynthia Hedstrom, Elizabeth LeCompte, Frances McDormand and Suzzy Roche -- of the Roches, do not have trained voices, but sing the songs simply but fervently. They sing what they hear. If the engineer puts the needle on the last bars of the previous track, they sing those as well. Every once in a while the women change places, but they remain very still, even when singing songs about moving, dancing, turning. There's very little facial expression. Everything is in the music. In the last fifteen minutes of the hour-long performance, four young men join the middle-aged women and the ensemble dance as the women sing. What had been still now becomes a flurry of movement. Again, no one seems to be a trained dances. There is a spontaneous quality to the movement. Often the singing women are in the center with the men in an outside circle.
What does one take away from this experience? I found it to be an irony-free, loving celebration of the music and, in its own way, deeply spiritual. Spirituality is not something I expect from the Wooster Group, but there it was, in their Spartan theatre on a very rainy night.
A unique experience.
EARLY SHAKER SPIRITUALS. The Wooster Group at the Performing Garage. Friday June 13.