Stranger Geniuses in performance zoe | juniper have teamed up with a local sacred harp choir to produce the most intense, backwoods Armageddon fever dream spiked with moments of meta-theatricality that I have ever experienced, and I'm a retired drama kid who was raised a Jehovah's Witness in western Missouri.
The show is called Clear & Sweet, and it combines spooky shape-note singing, atmospheric sludge metal, Zoe Scofield's sharp and innovative choreography (which includes blindfolded dancing!), and Juniper Shuey's digital wizardry to conjure up intimate battles between heaven and hell, submission and domination, and the living and the dead.
Clear & Sweet starts today and runs through the weekend. Before I go on about why you should make time to see it, you need to know what shape-note singing is. Though it's a protestant hymn movement imported to the U.S. from rural England in the 18th century, it's not exactly popular. Take a listen:
That's the sound an Alabama boy hears when he's walking toward the light.
Okay, now picture those singers arranged in a square around the stage at OtB. They all sing toward the center, where the dancers perform. From the rafters hangs a giant jellyfish—stay with me—on whose tentacles Shuey projects an abstract, Jupiter-colored hellscape. Sometimes he also projects angelic dancers whose movements reflect the real-life dancers. That's the set-up for Clear & Sweet.
For the most part the show is five steel-willow dancers doing their jittery-graceful thing beneath that illuminated jellyfish, but there's a moment where the atmospheric sludge music rises in volume as the shape-note singers repeat "dying by His hand" over and over as the digital dancers swirl like angels above the human dancers, and it just feels a lot like heaven is about to meet earth and then explode.
But there are quieter moments, too, and they relieve the pressure of the major swells. The dancers wrestle with their own demons during moving solos, or else perform intense Dom/sub duets that look like really intense couples yoga.
At one point, the dancers lay blindfolded on the ground. They form a sort of human snake or river. As they dance, they occasionally break out of their synchronized movements and adopt poses that look like stations of the cross—but weird ones. They use each other's bodies for guidance, balance, and support. I teared up for some reason. I think it was just nice to see people needing each other in chaos.
When I got home after watching a rehearsal (not even a dress rehearsal, just a rehearsal rehearsal), I got stuck watching a commercial for a video game called Gears of War 4. In the commercial, some kind of kraken was slurping up mech soldiers with its massive mouth tentacles, and my first thought was, "That's a daydream compared to the apocalyptic shit they got going on over at On the Boards right now."
Come to think of it, the last show I saw at OtB, Bridge Over Mud, was pretty apocalyptic, too. It's as if art director Lane Czaplinski foresaw the daily hell we'd all be living this October, and has offered up this season as a way to reflect on and to cleanse ourselves of it.
So, go, I say to you. Cleanse thyself with this gorgeous sludge.