Shakers rattle and a renowned writer and a duchess of dance roil the artistic waters in a new movement/theater piece that expresses an abundance about the repressed Shaker sect that settled in New Hampshire in the late 1700s under its gatekeeper/guardian Mother Ann Lee.
Reaping Angels has settled in for a limited run of unrestricted artistry at the Joyce Theater in New York.
Writer Alfred Uhry and choreographer Martha Clarke joined forces to forge word and movement about the celibate community now on the verge of extinction thanks, ironically, to their belief of separation of church and the state of physical union.
But the union of two Jews to create such a piece? It fits into their unorthodox approaches to art which have earned both cachet and acclaim.
And it doesn't take a genius to realize that Clarke, winner of a MacArthur Award -- popularly known as the "Genius" grants -- is a natural to explore this unorthodox community. Her bio brims with bravura, conforming only in its singular attachment to unconformity in its approach to art.
But even Clarke -- a multiple Guggenheim and National Endowment of the Arts fellowship/grant recipient -- grants that Uhry's offer seven years ago to collaborate on such a mix of music, movement and spoken/chanted word was, in a word, weird.
All shook up? "It sounded mishuga," laughs the affable artist.
But Reaping Angels is reaping attention. And the dance that drives it forward is not exactly light on its fete.
But then Clarke's claque of admirers is an international crew that takes her work seriously; indeed her moving staged tableaux of an adaptation of Hieronymus Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights" has delighted critics and audiences worldwide since its inception some 25 years ago.
Maybe, she quips -- with a sense of humor that can cause comic whiplash, reflecting both a Bosch and Borscht Belt sensibility ---- "this should be called 'The Garden of Heavenly Delights,' " since Shakers shook off material concerns awaiting their delivery to the high heavens.
For an artist with an airborne career, dancer-cum-choreographer Clarke credits this current company, most of whom had never worked together before, for creating the staged intensity of this rattle-shaking experience.
But if Reaping Angels roars on the stage, the lion's share of the credit belongs to its co-creators, who have committed to creating an atmosphere of near frightening intensity.
"With every project I like to scare myself," admits Clarke. "I like to find something to be fearful of."
Reaping Angels is a gold mine of menace then, showing how intellect and individualism can be thwarted all in the name of God.
"This is a new [geographic] area for me," says the artist whose past arenas have focused on international scenarios.
"I have never done any American subject before."
Writer Uhry certainly has, going deep within to explore the Deep South in so many of his works. Indeed, with a Pulitzer, an Oscar and two Tony Awards to his credit, what would possibly drive Driving Miss Daisy playwright/screenwriter Uhry to co-create a dance/theater work?
The ballyhooed writer -- whose vast credits include Broadway's The Last Night of Ballyhoo and the book for the musical Parade as well as the movie Mystic Pizza -- found this mystical sect mystifying -- and intriguing.
"Their conviction of celibacy goes against the human condition," he avers.
Sex and the suppressed? How does one deal with urges "when the body takes you where you don't want to go?"
The answers are provided by the hysterical and histrionic contortions the Shakers go through on stage -- masterfully choreographed by Clarke, a founding member of the pioneering Pilobolus dance company, known for its snaky and serpentine charm.
Ironically, inadvertent sexual release -- through some violent contortions of movement that attended their prayers -- provided an outlet for them.
Writing for Reaping Angels reaped a trove of unexpected pride for the Jewish scribe with southern German roots -- roots that seemed more at home at an Episcopalian church than a synagogue.
Reaping Angels afforded him a contrast between the Shaker shunning of life's many riches and Judaism's embrace of life and the corporal climate.
Maybe his calling to the Shaker stage work was all a matter of divine intervention? Uhry laughs, knowing full well that the allusion is to his next project, the already completed Divine Intervention, a fact-based drama about a Jew who was kidnapped and forced to accept Christianity in 19th-century Italy before going on to become a priest and a proselytizer for Christianity.
No change for the writer: As with Reaping Angels, always dancing on the precipice, eh, Alfred? The best works, he maintains, are those that raise questions and don't deliver answers. Like a form of "Talmudic art," he maintains.
But why the attraction to such complex unconventional characters throughout his career? "I think what you're saying, is that I write about" screwed-up people, but, he adds, with a laugh, "you're saying it in a much nicer way."
No way can his co-creator Clarke be convinced that she ever would have been shaken from her more comfortable roots to join a Shaker sect some 250 years ago. "I am to the manor born," she laughs.
There would be too much to give up, says the legend who has given the dance as well as theater and opera worlds much enlightenment amid the footlights.
It would mean abandoning travel -- she is off soon to Italy to choreograph a show filled with rock 'n' roll at La Scala.
And it would mean making a dramatic change in her off-stage schedule, she muses of being shackled to a Shaker lifestyle. After all, "I'd miss my HBO."