Posts Tagged ‘Shakers’

‘Heaven’ a Must-See Play

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

Idyllwild Arts play continues through Sunday at 2 p.m.

From the moment that the Shakers come singing merrily down the aisles, until their last march out the door, “As it is in Heaven” is nonstop rollarcoaster.

This new play, written by Arlene Hutton and performed by the Idyllwild Arts Theater Department, is billed as a “drama,” but there’s so much singing, shaking and marching going on, that it could easily be considered a “musical.” It continues with a 2 p.m. show today, April 25.

The story is set in a small village of Shakers, a strict religious sect founded by Mother Ann Lee, that practices celibacy, devotion and a nonstop work ethic. In return, the women (and men who are not shown in the play) receive food and shelter.

When the show opens, the women are confessing their “sins of the day,” which include looking at men, not being thoughtful or thankful enough, taking a second helping of food, and not saying their prayers. To most of us “outsiders” these are minor infractions, not sins to be openly confessed. But for the institution-like Shaker community, it is the ties that bind them.

At first, two young newcomers appear to assimilate into their new community. Soon after, however, Fanny, played by Catherine Velarde, begins to see “visions” of angels down by the meadow, and Polly, played by Jamie Cahill, draws pictures sent by Mother Ann Lee from heaven.

Fanny and Polly are accused of lying by the elders and shunned into silence.

“Why are you drawing trees, Sister Polly?” Betsy (Jessie Scales) asks. “We don’t need trees on seed packets. A simple drawing of a fruit or vegetable will do.”

“But I have a gift!” Polly insists.

Her later drawings bring comfort to older Shakers who were struggling with the changes brought on by the newcomers. Fanny’s “angel sightings” soon become impossible to ignore, and the Shakers grapple with the uncertainty.

Like the name implies, a Shaker’s immediate response is to “shake” away their fear, guilt and confusion, or stomp their feet and “trample” it. All this shaking, marching, stomping and singing occurs throughout the play, and keeps the audience on edge. Like a windup toy that never stops.

Izzy, played by Christine Wood, a girl from a broken family who grew up as a Shaker, pretends to see the same visions as Fanny, so she can befriend her. However, one day by the meadow where they were seeing angels, some town boys throw stones at Izzy and Polly, calling them “heretics.”

The image of Izzy recounting her story to the others is hard to forget. Lit with a warm light all around her, she is being propped up by the others who are comforting her. Izzy looked more like a deposed Christ, than a young girl who had just been pelted with stones. One cannot help but think of Mary Magdeline and the angry townsfolk who attempted to stone her.

Other Bible-type images are found throughout the play, such as Hannah’s “washing” of Fanny’s feet before she leaves on a long journey. It’s a scene that lasted only a few moments, yet was so intense, you could hear a pin drop.

In another instance, Hannah confronts Fanny about her “visions,” saying that Mother Ann would never appear to her, a lowly prostitute, but rather to one of the elders, who knew her on earth. This is a direct contrast to their Christian belief that God and Jesus,  a lowly carpenter’s son, are one.

Although the speech and staging is simple, this Shaker play covers such difficult subjects as prostitution and incest.

“I liked the fact that they did it subtlely,” said Kim Henderson, Chair of the Creative Writing Department at Idyllwild Arts. “Otherwise, subjects like that can easily take over an entire play.”

Fanny, as her name implies, was considered a “fallen woman” before she arrived in the Shaker community. She became a prostitute out of financial desparation, and was shunned by everyone, except the Shakers. However, she is the only one who sees Izzy’s situation clearly. As Izzy was being taken away by her father, Fanny shouts to her: “If he does anything wrong to you, Izzy, run away! Run away!”

Only poverty, depression and infant mortality is overtly discussed by Jane, a grieving mother, played by Nina Brett.

“Six babies I bore, and six babies died. All that pain for nothing,” Jane wails. “No, I don’t miss marriage at all. You young girls think it’s all pretty words and bouquets of flowers. But then your sick children are going to die.”

When Izzy interrupts her, saying that the mother cat wouldn’t clean her newborn runt, Jane quips: “Cats are smarter than people. They know when to give up on a sickly child.”

Ari Howell, as Hannah, the “Mother Superior” Shaker, tries unsuccessfully to “run roughshod” over Fanny and Polly with angry outbursts, shame and fear. (All the characteristics not becoming of a humble Shaker).  Soon, however, as Fanny gains power, Hannah, tries more desperate measures. She instructs the men to bulldoze the meadow, thereby removing the angels from Fanny’s view, and then orchestrates a fake angel-viewing ceremony of her own. It is inevitable, yet painful to watch Hannah’s downhill slide.

The acapella singing of the Shakers starts out clear and angelic, but becomes strained, and then outright angry by the end of the play. The voice of Peggy, played by Brooke Hebert, comes straight from the heavens, yet becomes heavy with emotion as she confronts the changes.

Coral Miro Cohen, who plays Rachel, adds humor to the simple songs.

“If we’re going to add harmony to our songs, we might as well be Methodist,” she quips.

On the other hand, songs by Phebe (played by Becca Goldberg) become increasingly angrier as she unsuccessfully confronts Hannah, and finds comfort and solace in everyday Shaker songs. In the end, there is only bitterness left in Phebe’s voice, as she spits out the lyrics. Quite possibly, Phebe is the only Shaker who becomes a true believer.

“As it is in Heaven” is a must-see for anyone who has ever practiced organized religion or believes in the power of angels. For more information, call Idyllwild Arts at (951) 659-2171, or visit “Center Stage” at www.idyllwildarts.org.

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Next Up: Shakers

Friday, March 5th, 2010

Howard Shangraw had a dilemma. He had to cast his next Idyllwild Arts student production, but it had to have a large number of female roles. He thought about “The Heidi Chronicles,” an award-winning Wendy Wasserman play about feminism, but the dialog was a little too “racy” for high school students.

“I can get away with a lot, but not that much,” Howard said with a smile.

The theater students had their own opinions. (After each play, Howard waits until the last minute to announce the next one, building up interest and anticipation.)

“The next musical is going to be ‘The Odd Couple’ with an all-female cast. I’m sure of it,” several students said.

The next play is about, well, Shakers.

“’As it is in Heaven’ is about religious persecution and a psychological cross section of humanity that is shrouded in simple purity,” Howard said.

According to various web sites, Shakers were a religious group that came from England in 1747. They believed that people could find God within themselves and not through rituals or clergy. They worshipped in plain meetinghouses where they marched, danced, sang, twitched and shouted. Many who didn’t understand their practices, considered them “heretics.”

“As it is in Heaven,” written by Arlene Hutton in 2006, explores generational conflict through the eyes of nine women in a Shaker village in Kentucky. Set in 1838, the play celebrates the music and dance traditions of Shakers, the “Society of Believers.” When three newcomers start to see visions, several of the older women, who haven’t seen any, begin to question their own devotions.

“You don’t know much about Shakers because they believed in strict celibacy. Since they didn’t procreate, they all died out,” Howard said.

Most people don’t know the difference between Quakers, Shakers, and Mennonites, Howard added. The play will showcase Shaker differences. For example, the men and women lived separately. “They ate and slept in different houses, and the only time they mingled was during service when they’d ‘shake’ away their lust,” he said.

He added that many of the songs in the play will be sung ‘acapella,” or without much music accompaniment. “They will be sung ‘like they were meant to be,’” he said.

For the music accompaniment, Howard asked several of the Idyllwild Arts music students to play in a small makeshift orchestra. Una Cheng, who plays percussion, was one of about 15 who played for the school’s musical last year.

“Howard gave us the music about a month before the musical began,” Una explained. As a percussionist, she didn’t have many solos, but had to pay attention to the play’s conductor. “It was fun, and Howard gave us pizza,” Una added.

Howard added that getting costumes for the musical would not be a problem because they plan to make most of them. “You’ve heard of the ‘Shaker’ bonnet, right?” he asked. Well, Shaker furniture, with its simple lines, has also come back into fashion with home decorators.

For more information about “As it is in Heaven,” the next Idyllwild Arts musical about Shakers, contact Howard at (951) 659-2171, ext. 2200, or visit www.idyllwildarts.org.

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