Flashback Friday - - Early Shaker Spirituals, 2015
Today is Frances McDormand's 60th birthday! Happy birthday, Ms. McDormand! In her honor I'm reprinting a review of a performance she did with the Wooster Group a few years ago.
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Howard, Richard, Karen, Bruce, Liz, Tom, and I saw this Wooster Group performance at St. Ann’s Warehouse on 5/1. My brother Howard read about a set of performances last spring, by which time it was sold out. But I read not too long afterwards that it was being brought back this spring - - I told Howard, and said it might be worth a special trip in from San Francisco. He agreed, and I got a group together.
I saw the Woosters a few weeks before, doing *Cry, Trojans!*, their wacko version of *Troilus and Cressida*. *Early Shaker Spirituals* is a “channeling” (their term) of an LP from 1976, recordings of the Sisters of the Shaker Community in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. This is one of Howard’s favorite albums ever, which is what turned him on to this project in the first place. The Woosters had four actors playing the roles of the Shaker ladies, telling the stories, and singing the songs: Frances McDormand, Suzzy Roche, Cynthia Hedstrom, and Elizabeth LeCompte. A young man on the side started the show with an explanation of the format of the show, and a little background on the Shaker community. This same young man read the liner notes from the album before each song.
Three of the actors sat on chairs center stage, the fourth inexplicably standing beside them, holding onto a floor lamp with no bulbs or shades (a vintage Wooster touch). They sang eighteen songs, some with all four singing, some with two or three, some as solos. The Wooster *Cry, Trojans!* and *Hamlet* were staged as mirrors of a film that was projected onto the stage, so you watched the actors imitating the film. This show had the actors listening to the LP on earpieces and singing along, but we couldn’t hear the recording (unless you listened really hard). This made it more satisfying - - the original was present, but it was invisible to the audience (or, in this case, silent).
McDormand and Roche delivered two monologues, interviews with the women on the recording, talking about how they learned the songs. Karen and I both felt the monologues were highlights of the show, and the show would have been stronger if they’d included more monologues (there are more on the original album). I would have especially loved seeing LeCompte in a larger role - - she and the late Spalding Gray were the original founders of The Wooster Group, and though she directs quite a lot of their work, this was the first time I’ve seen her onstage.
McDormand’s monologue started with us hearing both the original recording and her talking over it, and the recording faded away as it went on. That was fascinating. Roche gave the most beautiful performance in the show - - McDormand and the other two actors were rather stiff and blank, which is sort of the Wooster default setting. Roche was just as low affect, but had a sort of daffy smile, a transcendent sweetness. She was touching, I want to see her onstage more often.
The show ended with four young men joining the women, and the whole group dancing to six or seven of the songs. The dancing for the men was much more vigorous than for the women, those guys were turning it out. It was wonderful to hear the songs again, it was like they were teaching the songs to the audience.