BWW Reviews: David Cregan's EVERYMAN for Everyone at Villanova
"The Somonyng of Everyman" (better known as "Everyman") is a late 15th-century morality play along the same lines as "Pilgrim's Progress" - an allegorical representation of all people undergoes trials with the company of allegorical figures: Death, Beauty, Wit, Goods (personal possessions) and the like, with the aim of bringing the central figure - and by extension, the reader or spectator - to salvation. Such plays were usually performed at a church, and were accompanied by the music of the period, which was of course church music. It was wildly popular in its time, and was certainly widely performed for the century or so following its composition in Middle English. Its author is unknown, and it may have been a translation and adaptation of either a Dutch or a Latin play of its kind, but - well, sometimes it's hard enough to get an audience for Marlowe these days. How to interest an audience in a morality tale in ambiguously comprehensible pre-modern English? How to put it on stage at Villanova Theatre?First, a good modern translation. Playwright and Villanova alumnus Mark Joseph Costello was commissioned by Villanova Theatre to give us EVERYMAN, a poetic but incisively clear modern English rendering of the text. When Death comes to claim Everyman, or at least to set Everyman on a quest to find salvation on the way to eternity, whether Heaven or Hell, Everyman makes a fine worker's complaint about the task: "You've no concept of leisure, have you? This work's best put off a while, yes?"
Second, a modern updating that does justice to the text, that puts it in a similar position but with a fresh take that makes sense. That's sometimes the downfall of a modernized play (more than one director's died on the hill of updating Shakespeare badly), but Villanova theatre department head Fr. David Cregan has navigated those waters fascinatingly, and more than appropriately. Trading the semi-apocalyptic world of the Middle Ages for the semi-apocalyptic world of 70's and 80's urban punk seems just about right - an angel in an I (Heart) NY t-shirt and long black skirt, a figure of Beauty in a Union Jack miniskirt, ripped hose, and sparkling chains, are as poignant as peasantry, but more readily accessible to us mentally. The allegorical figures seen in the Middle Ages in such plays worked symbolically then; we need a new symbology in such a play now that resonates with an audience five hundred years later.
In the realm of updating, both the spectacular punk costuming by Courtney Boches and the set design by Seth Thomas Schmitt-Hall are worthy of note. The costuming has been mentioned; the village green in front of the church, where such a play would have taken place, has been transformed into what looks like nothing less than a disco when its mirror-ball is revolving on stage - and for those who lived the life then, disco was a religion, discos themselves temples of that religion. In New York and some other cities, defunct churches were converted into discos, and gossip of what took place at Studio 54, at the Limelight, at other clubs took the place of gossip about the village of earlier centuries and of goings-on among parishioners.
One further update is most significant: Everyman is in Cregan's production played by a woman, Villanova Theatre newcomer Hallie Martenson. The gender-swap adds incredible dimensions to this play. Everyman is a sinner - but do we view sins among women as the same as or worse than the same by men? Everyman goes to her best friend, a male, for help - does his promise to stay by her and hold her hand have a sexual undertone? Is his vow to take a knife for his friend simply a matter of friendship, or is it now colored by gender roles and chivalry? The suggestion by her friend that they carouse the local houses of ill-repute to make Everyman's troubles feel less is now loaded. When Beauty flees and cannot accompany Everyman to the grave, can we avoid meditating on women's cultural value on maintaining the appearance of youth long past its end? Can we ignore the debate on whether women's growing old gracefully means accepting aging or fighting it? Most importantly - can a viewer watch a woman represent all people figuratively without the habit of compartmentalizing women as "other" and instead viewing men as the representation of all humanity? It's a brilliant twist that must impel anyone in the audience to examine their own notions of gender and sex roles, and the assumption that the male is the universal symbol of all people.
The accompanying music is no longer medieval church music - although some of it is. The music, and the songs inserted throughout, reach from, at the start of the play, original period music to, at the end, contemporary secular music. That should come as no surprise to a culture that holds Madonna in higher esteem, in many circles, than her namesake - popular culture is a secular religion for many (see the comment regarding disco culture).
And the opening symbol of Everyman's repudiation of goodness and self-absorption in the worldly? What other than having her (somewhat post-punk-era, but who cares?) smartphone firmly in hand so that she can continue texting? When Death comes to meet her, her great concern is for her phone, more so than her life. A look on any street will confirm that this is how modern existence indeed works.
Mortenson is a fine and expressive performer, as are the rest of the cast. Goods, Victoria Rose Bonito, recently seen as Maggie in RED HERRING, is not only an equally fine performer but her costume is spectacularly on point, as she wears a dress made from upscale shopping bags, symbolizing Everyman's quest for superior goods as the means to a superior life. Christine Petrini, Good Deeds, comes chained to a wall in recognition that Everyman's other works have kept the merit of her good works in check. Petrini's character's growth and blossoming as Everyman works her way through penance is spectacularly handled. And Knowledge, Jill Jacobs, is properly dedicated and stoic.
There may be those who blink at the section on penance, but indeed, scourging is an ancient tradition and is in the play. Admittedly, in the re-setting of the play, and given the bondage-look wardrobes involved in punk, there's an edge to the scene here that probably wasn't intended in the original. And a modern audience, especially the non-Catholics, may find a snicker or two at the realization that finding a priest and trusting in his wisdom, which is superior to yours, and in his direct pipeline to God. But roll with it - hold off on the cynicism for a moment to appreciate the writing itself, and the staging.
The most important factor here is that this is a subject, a story, and a theme that can very easily, whether in the original or modernized, either turn into camp or into an evangelistic thumper, or, worse, as sometimes happens with religious plays, both together. This production avoids all of that - the presentation is neither cynical nor too knowing, nor is it winking; on the other hand, while the language is polemical, the presentation is purely, and successfully, theatrical - it no more grabs the audience by the throat and demands instant conversion than a production of ROMEO AND JULIET proposes that lovers should jointly commit suicide outside the realm of the story itself.
The most important thing here is that Cregan, his cast, and his crew have succeeded in making a play whose interest to anyone outside a Catholic university would seem questionable at first blush into a play that demands to be seen by everyone. This translation and the production itself have moved what would appear to be a theatrical artifact into serious theatre requiring serious examination. Be prepared to be moved, be prepared to be excited, be prepared to be challenged, but witness this piece of theatre.
At Villanova Theatre through November 24, and deserving of being put on DVD to be available thereafter. For tickets, contact the theatre at 610-519-7474 or check the theatre's webpage at www.villanovatheatre.org.
Photo courtesy of Villanova Theatre.