Early Shaker Spirituals and Omen

Elizabeth LeCompte, Suzzy Roche, Frances McDormand and Cynthia Hedstrom 

In the 19th century guests visited and reported on Shaker services, where hymns were accompanied by barely choreographed, ecstatic dance movements and gestures, such as “shaking off of sins.” The startling Quick Dance is the first illustrated in Kate Valk’s Early Shaker Spirituals, based on a record album of the same name made in the 70s by Maine Shakers. Of two productions of the album, we saw Side One, which includes 'Tis the gift to be simple, 'Tis the gift to be free, 'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be.” 

Having enjoyed the mischief of Kate Valk in such Wooster Group productions as North Atlantic, we missed seeing her onstage. Hilton Als called Valk “the Meryl Streep of Downtown.” Used to usual Wooster shenanigans, a couple in the audience laughed distractingly to Early Shaker Spirituals, but the play’s serious intent was never in doubt.

Among the Shakers are Elizabeth LeCompte and Suzzy Roche, who looks like the ultimate Shaker, a Dorothea Lange Dust Bowl figure, even though we know her as hip Suzzy Roche, member of the singing group The Roches. The perfection of Frances McDormand (Fargo’s Marge Gunderson) in a bonnet raises this event to a religious experience. She sings “My life I freely have laid down, to bear the cross and wear the crown.” You entered the theater a jaded sinner and leave feeling clean and new.

The spare set by Elizabeth LeCompte and Jim Clayburgh is easy enough to reproduce as the production tours Europe. An electric reading lamp reminds us how the Shakers, for all their spartan living, were among the first to wire their homes for electricity and drive around in cars. They were pastry chefs and made a different pie for every month of the year. As songwriters they were Transcendentalist poets, and they invented the clothespin, metal pen nibs, flat broom, wringer washing machine, and wrinkle-free clothing. So what if their dancing looked weird?

They are mostly known for cabinetry, and every museum in the US displays something Shaker. Founded by illiterate English factory worker Ann Lee, she and eight of her disciples came to America in 1774. The Shakers were at their height in 1840. They were celibate and adopted into the community orphans and runaway slaves, in some cases paying for the slaves' freedom. Everyone called each other brother and sister and had equal rights.

Because we know them for their furniture, essentially, a more elaborate set with unpainted wooden Shaker chairs might have suggested that Early Shaker Spirituals was about to crack the mystery of the Shakers, but its aim is more simple.  

Kyoto-style Omen restaurant in Soho

Omen A Zen, in Soho, is the single offshoot of a historic fish and udon restaurant in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. The highly refined Kyoto aesthetic is plain and unadorned.

Kyoto cuisine may taste bland at first, then you realize the ingredients are so fresh that little seasoning is involved or needed. Tzukemeno, pickled vegetables, are white and yellow daikon or radishes and cabbage gently pickled, with textures and flavors sharpened by the lightest treatment. If you're not used to raw food, there are cooked dishes, including grilled salmon or chicken teriyaki and broiled eel.

Chewy, thick udon noodles with broth, crushed sesame seeds, and a photogenic bowl of slivered roots (lotus, ginger, scallion and burdock), vegetables and seaweed. The noodles, imported fresh from Kyoto, and broth are served cold or hot. There is a changing seasonal menu that includes their eggplant with sesame-miso sauce and buckwheat soba noodles other times of the year.

Though Omen has the look of a rustic Kyoto teahouse, the New York restaurant has made some changes from the original Omen, where every piece of pottery and every sake cup was made by a potter. It still feels like Kyoto, though the dessert menu includes green tea tiramisu. What’s shocking is to enter such a traditional and lofty Japanese restaurant without leaving your shoes at the door.