It may be that I have seen too many of the poets theater productions at Small Press Traffic in San Francisco, or maybe it's just that the 19th century is something I'm reasonably informed about, but Friday night's show seemed to me logically altogether consistent and not the slightest bit outré. In any event I never had the sensation that I had no idea what was going on, as occasionally true in productions previous.
Thus it was no surprise at all to witness Cliff Hengst's stellar performance as Apple Betty, the totally disgusting old woman of the forest, mother of the twelve-fingered son Ludwig, who inexplicably speaks German, wears faux Lederhosen, and leches uncontrollably after the sisters in the local Shakers utopian religious community located somewhere close to the wrong side of Amherst, Massachusetts.
Thanks to an unusually assiduous R&D division, the Shaker community was known for its invention of useful household utensilia such as chairs and brooms, but in this case it emerged that utopia has its price, and due to significant issues regarding gender relations and a murder, the community eventually goes up in flames.
Nevertheless I rejoiced to learn of Sister Polly's inspired invention of the coat peg, was delighted to see that the original Trader Joe had found his way into the plot with his offerings of comestibles "not from these parts," and raised neither of my eyebrows to observe Walt Whitman, apparently not yet fully recovered from his earlier employment as a male nurse in Washington and now dedicated to purveying Whitman's chocolates, caring for the physical needs of handsome Amos, a wounded veteran from Tennessee suffering from post-Civil-War syndrome.
The discovery of Emily Dickinson hiding out as a Shaker spiritual pioneer to avoid contact with her slimy 19th-century parents was also not totally unexpected, explaining perhaps her disturbing tendency to compose poems with a sado-masochistic edge to them, as explained by Camille Paglia and others.
Deftly avoiding mention of the more serious problems which pervaded life in the 19th century -- slavery, genocide of the American Indians, cholera, dysentery, Andrew Jackson and bedbugs -- the script nevertheless did much to elucidate daily life in utopian religious colonies, and offer a tentative explanation for their early demise.
My only complaint was with the employment of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" in the musical finale, which is due to my probably exaggerated veneration of the Carter Family's recording of it. I think I should have replaced it with "Are You Washed in the Blood of the Clam," or something.
But I grumble here minimally, it was a fine and funny evening on a rainy weekend in San Francisco, where we anxiously await news from Philadelphia regarding the success of our baseball warriors.
The Shakers!, a play by Wayne Smith and Kevin Killian, was performed at Small Press Traffic Poets Theater on October 22nd in San Francisco.