"The Shakers" a play by Kevin Killian and Wayne Smith at Small Press Traffic

The Shakers Backstage--photo courtesy of Kevin Killian
Once again Kevin Killian and Wayne Smith have given the Bay Area the gift of an evening of communal pleasure. It is not the 19th Century, but the 21st, and yet, Killian and Smith's play (set in the 19th century) reminds me of the 19th century's delight in tableaux vivants, but with a difference. The tableau vivant--"the living picture, the tableau historique, the pose plastique, the pregnant moment, the costumed tableau and film still"--according to the University of Chicago's Theories of Media Keyword Glossary, has its origins in "medieval liturgical dramas." The first tableau vivant was staged in 1760 when "Carlo Bertenazzi represented Grueze's painting, "The Village Betrothal in Les Noces d'Arlequin" at Versailles. The tableaux vivants were part entertainment and part educational and informational as they represented paintings and important moments in history and literature. They were "performed variously as a parlour game, a carnival attraction, pageant, pedagogical tool or propaganda image, [and] the history of the tableau vivant is most commonly located in popular entertainments and is usually found within the context of informal social gatherings" (The New Orleans Society for Tableau Vivant). I suspected that these entertainments might have also provided yet another way of enjoying the bodies of women, particularly if the painting being re-produced in the tableau was one with scantily clad figures. The New Orleans Society for Tableau Vivant's history confirms this:

Originally a parlor game for the wealthy, tableau vivant gained wide popularity in the 19th century only to fade away with the coming of radio and moving pictures. There are numerous examples of tableau vivant in European culture ranging from the refined to the crude. In late 19th century London, for example, the still pose of the tableau cleverly by-passed laws on public nudity making it possible for clubs, like The Windmill, to put naked ladies on display for the ostensible purpose of edifying the (male) public by recreating classical sculptures!

In this particular play there weren't any nude bodies, though Walt Whitman found romance by the banks of the river with a Civil War deserter. Killian and Smith's The Shakers reminds me of these tableaux vivants not because they are produced by people with money and leisure, mostly quite the opposite, but because they are collective entertainments that enlist members of the community who are not professional actors. The play is as much entertainment for those collaborating as it is for those in the audience. And yes, tableaux vivants, were silent, visual entertainments, and poets theater is a garrulous, and usually minimally costumed and staged theater, but they seem to bring a form of poetry (rather than paintings and art history), to a broad audience; they have a carnavalesque atmosphere and provide a social and local space for poetry to perform and engage critique, history, pleasure.

Last night, The Shakers playfully intermixed the present (in its self-reflexive commentary on life and literature of the period) with 19th century Massachusetts. Set near Amherst, the play included appearances by the parents of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman (who had come to the Shaker village to take advantage of the Shakers' industrious workers who would produce his "Whitman Sampler" chocolates), and soldiers who had fought in the recent Civil War. Trader Joe, dressed in surfer/Hawaiian shirt and jeans, showed up with his traveling wagon with good deals on Merlot, Swiss cheese, and other fare. There were lines from Whitman's poems, including references to "I sing the body electric," and his poem about the recently assassinated President Lincoln:

WHEN lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Selections from a number of Emily Dickinson's poems including all of "My Life had stood a Loaded Gun."

My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
In Corners - till a Day
The Owner passed - identified -
And carried Me away -

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods -
And now We hunt the Doe -
And every time I speak for Him -
The Mountains straight reply -

And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow -
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through -

And when at Night - Our good Day done -
I guard My Master's Head -
'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's
Deep Pillow - to have shared -

To foe of His - I'm deadly foe -
None stir the second time -
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye -
Or an emphatic Thumb -

Though I than He - may longer live
He longer must - than I -
For I have but the power to kill,
Without--the power to die--

And there were quips about Dickinson's maid and Aife Murray's recent book on Dickinson, Maid as Muse. While the sets were minimal in this play, it made use of excellent costumes (including a living costumed fire sculpture by Matthew Gordon who was assisted by Mik Gaspay) and sound--both songs sung back- and on-stage by the players, and the recorded voice of Anne McGuire and various other sounds--barnyard animals, birds, etc.

The play takes us on a romp through a Shaker village with its competitive innovators--men and women who forgo sexuality and channel/sublimate all that energy into industrious inventions from pegs for hanging things, to brooms and chairs. The Shakers trade with Apple Betty, a 108 year old forest woman who has an 18 year old German son in lederhosen and a newborn at the end of the play. Apple Betty (played by the always amazing Clifford Hengst), in stark contrast to the Shakers' love of cleanliness, enjoys "shuffling through her own Parthenon of dust." And then there is Polly, a young Shaker with amnesia who tires of all the toiling and wants to gaze at the dots in the sky and make lines between them, naming the constellations. She cites Tristan and Isolde and fancies many/any of the men who cross her path. Charles, the community's leader, is discovered  to have fathered one of the Shaker boys while at a Shaker Conference some 20 years+ ago.  The play closed with all players on stage singing "Will the Circle be Unbroken."   Of course, there's more, all that I can't begin to capture. I left feeling tired but high.

Here's the casting info for The Shakers:

Apple Betty, old woman of the woods Clifford Hengst  (Fab! Over the top.)

“Polly,” a young Shaker with amnesia................ Karla Milosevich (Karla's speaking voice is amazing. I could listen to her all day. Twangy lilt.)

Peg, a young Shaker, inventor of the peg...... Jocelyn Saidenberg  (Poor Peg. She loved Luke, but hadn't invented anything since "the peg.")

Ludwig, strange son of Apple Betty Craig Goodman  (Really, he only wanted to kiss those clean Shaker girls)

Sister Ray, eldress to all female Shakers...... Laurie Reid  (Loves her man no matter what)

Elder Charles, her male counterpart............ Rex Ray        (Snaky)

Luke, a young Shaker, Civil War veteran.... Taylor Brady  (So innocent in that blond wig!)

Frank, a young Shaker.. Colter Jacobsen  (Smart)

Nancy, a young Shaker............... Yedda Morrison  (Breathy)

Uriah Lee, a British Shaker, descendant of Mother Ann Lee David Brazil  (Great accent; good electric chair)

Amos, a veteran of the American Civil War.......... Scott Hewicker  (He falls for Walt)

Joe, the trader.... Glen Helfand  (a practical man)

Walt Whitman, poet, nurse, gadabout.... Kevin Killian    (Underplayed suavely)

Belle Adore, worldly woman of Amherst... Lindsey Boldt  (The shoes, the dress, the bar girl posture!)

Edward Dickinson, Congressman with a missing daughter Darin Klein

Mrs. Dickinson, his wife....... Tanya Hollis   (Stunning in black)
Anne McGuire singing on recorded tracks -- that unearthly voice you heard, manipulated by Wayne Smith who selected all the music (and wrote some). (Awesome)

The "fire" sculpture was the product of the artist Matthew Gordon, who was assisted by Mik Gaspay as they crawled all over the stage to create the illusion of the village on fire. (They even crackled)

For more, read Dodie Bellamy's blog entry on the play and lots else!

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