Review: The Wooster Group finds grace in ‘Shaker Songs’

Los Angeles Times Theater Critic

Now that screen technology has overrun our lives, it makes sense that the Wooster Group would take a break from its multimedia revels and turn to the austere Shakers for inspiration.

The storied downtown New York performance group has gone from postmodern to anti-modern in “Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation,” which opened Wednesday at REDCAT.

This 50-minute karaoke act, paying more or less unironic homage to an album of 19th century songs by a Christian sect that makes abstinence a devotional practice, seems at first a palate cleanser for the company. But the glorious assemblage of accomplished women on stage suggests that there’s something more going on.

Under the direction of Kate Valk, normally the troupe’s leading performer, “Early Shaker Spirituals” features an ensemble that includes company director Elizabeth LeCompte, who usually guides the staging out of the spotlight. The other women in the cast are Oscar winner Frances McDormand, Suzzy Roche (of the female vocal group the Roches), producer Cynthia Hedstrom and choreographer Bebe Miller.


Men occupy a peripheral place even when they’re front and center. There’s an emcee who introduces the songs, a DJ manning a turntable and a quartet of hipsters who join the acetic jamboree when some ecstatic dance moves are added to this otherwise sober singalong.

These dudes are younger and hipper, but the focus is on the women seated in hardback chairs and wearing outfits that appear to have been made on the same vintage sewing machine.

McDormand dons a bonnet and the same long-suffering expression that the camera kept coming back to at this month’s Golden Globes telecast. LeCompte bears herself as though she has already transcended this world and is just waiting for her body to finally take notice. Roche, unfaltering in her character, gives an impression of bad circulation and creaky joints stoically endured.

All of the women assume the same impassive pose as they individually and collectively cover the hymns and marching songs from the album that are fed to them via earpieces. (The 1976 recording is occasionally audible, adding a subtle version of the trademark Wooster Group layering effect.)


The cast works assiduously to match the inflections and cadences of the original. This point is vividly brought to life when McDormand delivers a virtuoso rendition, stammer by stammer, of the recorded explanation for how the songs were generationally handed down.

The colorless singing is an expression of the characters’ abstemiousness. Materialistic joys are beyond this group, whose most famous song “ ‘Tis the Gift to be Simple” articulates a sacred creed.

There is no desire to satisfy outside standards or entertain the masses. If their voices crack or wobble out of tune, it’s all the same to these women. Shaker musicality is as unvarnished as Shaker carpentry.

What could be the points of connection between an avant-garde performance company and this monastic tradition? Nothing on the surface, but dig deeper and you’ll find the same proud insularity, daily commitment to work and openness to the grace of inspiration.


But it’s the gender dimension of “Early Shaker Spirituals” that resonates most. The female performers — all of a certain age, all dedicated to the arts — seem to be deriving strength from their communal bond, a sisterhood dedicated to a higher purpose, much like the Shaker women they’re portraying.

When the hipsters enter to take part in the dancing, there is no flirtation or distraction from a pure and egalitarian vision. “Early Shaker Spirituals,” a brief work that could probably be presented as effectively as a theatrical installation in a gallery, reminds us that artists following a true calling are secular saints.


‘Early Shaker Spirituals’


Where: REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd Street, L.A.

When: 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 1

Tickets: $50

Info: (213) 237-2800,


Running time: 50 minutes