It is a bold company which reaches back to 1530 to launch its season, and a bolder company still to stage a play about making account to God in this relentlessly secular city and age. But the principal commendation which The Edge of the Universe Players 2 earns for producing The Summoning of Everyman is not for boldness but for art: director Stephen Jarrett’s company has put on a version of the play which is accessible, clear and, in its final moments, moving.
In Everyman, almighty God (Keith Irby), distressed that mankind has degenerated into a cesspool of self-indulgence and greed, commands Death (Jase Parker) to bring Everyman to his grave, and to final judgment. Death confronts Everyman (David Elias) as he flirts with a pretty lady (Rachel Isaacson, who also plays the recorder) and delivers his dread news. Everyman – anticipating Kübler-Ross by about 450 years, first resists and then tries to bargain. No dice.
He then summons those he was closest to in life – good fellowship (Josh Sticklin), his kin (Logan Sutherland and Caroline Wolfson), and his worldly goods (Jennifer Robison) – to accompany him on his journey, and so supplement his own empty credentials. But as soon as they hear where he’s going, they head in the other direction, full of feeble excuses (his cousin explains that he has a cramp in his toe).
Having been deserted by his more familiar companions, Everyman must turn to Good Deeds (Lynette Rathnam). But she is so undernourished that she cannot stand up, and so she sends her brother Knowledge (Sticklin; Jarrett has changed the character’s gender). Knowledge leads him to Confession (Wolfson), who hears Everyman, now terrified – less from his anticipated condemnation than from his understanding of his life’s emptiness – express remorse for his sins. She hands him a scourge, which he gratefully applies; his self-abasement revitalizes Good Works, which now can travel with him to the throne.
You might, with your 2013-model minds, think this story bizarre, even pathological. The scourge? Who uses a scourge on himself, except as part of a sado-masochistic ritual? (One answer: Karol Wojtyla, a/k/a John Paul II, due for canonization next month). But the story is more relevant than you might think. Imagine an agnostic, or someone whose God does not judge, who suddenly learns that he is terminally ill. Would his thoughts not turn to assessing his life? Might he not scourge himself, if not with a medieval device then with harsh thoughts and recriminations? Might he not seek to draw consolation from his new Lexus, his excellent suit? Might he not draw on his network of important friends, or those who had loved him, to give his life meaning? Now he says (with Popeye) “I am what I am” but soon he will say “I am what I was”, which is to say, his good works.
Thus, while The Summoning of Everyman has meaning which lasts to this day (in the Philippines, productions routinely draw audiences of two thousand or more), it is the company’s job to bring that meaning before us. This company succeeds, principally as a result of Elias’ brilliant work in the title role. The unknown author or authors wrote Everyman to be craven in the face of Death (a dread and routine companion of the people of that era), but Elias, and director Jarrett, make him more defiant and so create a story arc of resistance and realization which makes sense to contemporary audiences.
The Summoning of Everyman
Closes November 24, 2013
Woolly Mammoth Theatre
Melton Rehearsal Hall
641 D St NW
1 hour, no intermission
Saturdays thru Sundays
This is a verse play and, like a much more modern verse play, WSC Avant Bard’s There is a Happiness That Morning Is, it is correctly done here as a story which carries the verse along with it. The cast is acting, not reciting poetry. Musicians (Scott Morrison on percussion and Gus Voorhees on the hurdy-gurdy, as well as Isaacson) accompany the work; their precision with these ancient instruments is a credit to them and musical director Elise Kress. At the beginning, middle and end of the show the company stages a little dance, complete with juggling; all praise and honor to choreographer Karin Abromaitis. Longtime 1st Stage mainstay Cheryl Patton Wu is responsible for the beautiful costumes. In short, for this production, Edge of the Universe Players 2 has decided to engage highly competent professionals to present their art, and the correctness of that decision shows in the quality of the art.
The Summoning of Everyman, author unknown . directed by Stephen Jarrett. Featuring Lynette Rathnam, Logan Sutherland, Keith Irby, Jase Parker, David Elias, Josh Sticklin, Caroline Woolfson, and Jennifer Robison. Musicians: Rachel Isaacson on recorder, Scott Morrison on percussion, and Gus Voorhees, who was also a production assistant, on the hurdy-gurdy. Music direction by Elise Kress; Choreography by Karin Abromaitis; Set and props design by John Bowhers . Costume design by Cheryl Patton Wu . Lighting design by Peter Caress . Set construction by Jan Forbes. Stage Manager: Debbie Grossman . Produced by William Goodman and The Edge of the Universe Players 2 . Reviewed by Tim Treanor