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Gerald Carpenter: Elite Theater Co. Has a Whole Lot of Shakers Going On

New production of the musical As It Is In Heaven offered through Sept. 18

Now through Sept. 18, the Elite Theatre Company, 730 South B St. in Oxnard, is offering a new production of the musical As It Is In Heaven by Arlene Hutton (Beth Lincks).

The play is directed by Tom Eubanks, with vocal direction by Jaye Hersh, choreography by Jeff Wallach, and a cast that includes Helene Benjamin, Erin Heulitt, Karla Marie Holland, Heather Linkletter, Leticia Mattson, Kim Prendergast, Shirley Raun, Brittany Saturnino, Sindy Swerdlove, Allison Williams, Julia Wilson and Alison Vance.

The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, known to us as Shakers, were among the many radical Protestant sects that flourished in America in the early part of the 19th century. They are believed to have been an offshoot of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, and they lived a monastic, communitarian life.

Absolute equality of the genders was one of the bedrock tenets of Shaker life, but so was absolute celibacy, which more or less guaranteed their eventual disappearance. They were excellent farmers and crafts workers, and their furniture is still famous. Their religious services were the exact opposite of the dour Calvinist Sundays, with their two-hour sermons hung with acres of black broadcloth. The Shakers practiced a joyous, ecstatic brand of Christianity, with much singing and dancing.

Hutton is the pen name of actor-director Lincks. She wrote As It Is In Heaven in 2001, after visiting the Pleasant Hill Shaker Village in Harrodsburg, Ky., a restored community that the Shakers had maintained for more than 100 years. Unable to attract new converts, the village was abandoned in 1927.

The play, set in the Harrodsburg community during the 1830s, concerns with the arrival of Fanny at the village, and the huge burst of what Marshall McLuhan called “hybrid energy” released when Fanny’s visionary new kind of faith mixes with — and disrupts — the fixed patterns of community life. After Fanny has a vision of angelic messengers in the meadow, the young women of the village began to break out in songs and giggles, and the whole place is soon in an uproar.

All of the 15 songs in As It Is In Heaven are authentic Shaker compositions, written between 1829 and 1870. All are charming and moving, but one of them is a good deal more. That is “Simple Gifts,” written in 1848 by Joseph Brackett Jr. in the Shaker community of Alfred Maine.

Most of us know, and love, the melody of this song from Aaron Copland’s use of the tune in his groundbreaking ballet Appalachian Spring, but he later transcribed the entire song, adding a beautiful orchestral accompaniment, for Set One of his “Old American Songs”:

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
‘Twill be in the Valley of Love and Delight.

As It Is In Heaven plays at 8:30 p.m. Fridays, 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $17 for adults and $15 for seniors and students. For reservations, call 805.483.5118.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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