Taproot Theater is a small theater staged sort of like a blackbox—there are three sides to the stage and a balcony to watch from above. This leads to a uniquely intimate theater experience and complicated, interesting movement from the actors who need to speak to all areas of the audience. As It is in Heaven, their performance for April, was no exception. As It is in Heaven, premiered in 2009, is as moving as it is witty. It follows the story of nine Shaker women navigating the troubles of their supposedly utopian life—led by three girls supposedly receiving messages from ethereal angels. Tradition battles faith, passion battles reality, and the women faithful must choose between rebellion and safety.
Taproot’s productions typically induce the same feeling as watching a Wes Anderson movie or an opera—sleepy, beautiful, and perfectly executed. All performances there are polished and smooth, but this piece in particular showed off how impressive creating such an immaculate performance really is. Every single movement is thought of, every word spoken perfectly. The show was full of intricate dancing, a dozen songs, and snappy dialogue that seemed precarious—one wrong phrase and everything would have unraveled. However, this amusing, intellectually challenging piece was handled beautifully, creating an impressive, immersive experience.
Another strength is their repertoire of actors. It’s equally exciting to watch the same actor play a completely different character as it is to be introduced to a newer actor. This play featured some seasoned actors that were immediately recognizable to seasoned Taproot fans, as well as some new delightful faces making their debut. The actors did phenomenally well with this production; typically Taproot’s shows are carried by the high stakes and suspense, which offset the soothing quality of their selection of plays, but As It is in Heaven created stakes with high emotional drama and sharp humor. This tactic within the writing really showcased the actors’ ability to hold an audience captive and create their own emotional stakes. Without the impassioned portrayal of the women witnessing angels, the emotional impact would have been hard to believe. It’s unsure whether this speaks more to the writing, directing, or acting, but in any case the end result was entertaining and moving.
One of the oddities that come from Taproot’s small stage size is that they tend to reuse set pieces to create different places when the script requires the actors move around. In this production, church pews were swapped and stacked to show a variety of places: a fountain, a baking bench, a forest, even a chicken coop. And the way the actors behave around the set—it’s nearly believable.
Taproot’s actual set design, apart from the ingenuitive moving parts, is also to be admired—the space seems to seamlessly transform between plays from an Edwardian library stacked with ancient books to a cute corner convenience store. As a theater company, that is one of the most consistent entertaining factors of their play, but this particular set was a little plain. Perhaps this was to emphasize the supposedly simple nature of the Shaker life, but compared to the sets of other Taproot shows, it was much less interesting to look at.
Overall, this production was an excellent demonstration of Taproot’s strengths: period pieces, clever sets, and phenomenal actors. Although As It is in Heaven has closed, there will be plenty more phenomenal shows in the upcoming year—Taproot has been a fixture in Seattle since 1976 and will continue to be into the far future.
As It is in Heaven took place at Taproot Theatre Company on March 22 - April 22, 2023. For more information see here.