Tis a Gift to Be Simple

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

The latest Wooster Group show at REDCAT, Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation doesn't feel like recent company shows. It's a testament to the consistency of REDCAT programming that we could even say that in LA about this New York company.

A clichéd version of a Wooster Group show is a technology rich, deconstructed affair - often fairly male and testosterone driven. Not so with "Early Shaker Spirituals." Even though, as you'll learn in the show's opening moments, the "Record Album Interpretation" is a return to an old form for the company, this show feels like a departure. Yes, there's technology but it's decidedly analog.

In fact, in one sense, there isn't much there.

It's not a play - at least not in a strict traditional sense. There isn't much 'drama.'

What there is, as the title would suggest, is an interpretation of a vinyl LP, Side A of "Early Shaker Spirituals" from 1976. Onstage, for the bulk of the show, an ensemble of five women. They sit on a tiny set of what feels like a deconstructed clapboard house with a green and white linoleum floor. We're greeted by a boyish narrator. He introduces us to the album and the track, hands it to a man standing by a record player - who after a nod from the cast - drops the needle. What we hear is not the album itself, this being the Wooster Group that's being played into the earpieces of the cast. What we hear is the cast singing these short spirituals. The melody you're most likely to recognize is from "Tis a gift to Be Simple:" Aaron Copeland's inspiration for "Appalachian Spring."

Over the course of an hour we make it through 18 songs and two brief testimonials. The house lights never go down; for the most part the women sing in stillness. Then having made it through the album, the women are joined by four young men. They reprise several of the songs we've heard but this time with movement.

That's it.

As I said, there isn't much there.

But there isn't much there in the same way there isn't much to a Shaker chest of drawers.

To borrow from the Metropolitan Museum's note on their Shaker furniture collection:

“The guiding Shaker principles of honesty, utility, and simplicity found expression in various crafts ... Shakers are renowned for their minimalist design and unstinting quality. Rejecting excessive ornament because it ostensibly encouraged the sin of pride.”

Like a piece of Shaker furniture, the show is strikingly beautiful in it's simplicity. There is the simple dignity of these regal women: unadorned, singing together. There isn't much drama...until you consider the broader context. When's the last time you saw a play led by five mature women? Or you contemplate what drew an ensemble theater company to make a piece about a nearly extinct, self-reliant, communal group of believers who made high quality art.

Perhaps the simplest thing I can say about the show is "It made me very happy" - not in a complicated critically-minded way, but in a simple human way.

"Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation" plays downtown at REDCAT through this Sunday, February 1.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Running time: 1 hour without an intermission.

Photo: Wooster Group's "Early Shaker Spirituals" (Steven Gunther)