All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Imagination and creativity abound copiously during every single second of Villanova Theatre’s production of “Everyman.”
Rev. David Cregan’s evocative 21st century mounting of this classic 15th century morality play serves as a shining exhibition of pure, magnificent theater. It tells “Everyman’s” ages-old story in a vibrant and exciting way, combining sharp and savvy conceptual artistry with modern technology in a manner that would have frightened the wits, let alone the sins, out of someone from the Middle Ages or rained down accusations of witchcraft on Cregan and his ensemble for the theatrical sorcery they practice.
Craft, theater crafts of many sorts, are employed to stunning, magical effect that drives home “Everyman’s” persistent message of penance, salvation, and preparation for a happy afterlife without ever becoming preachy or cloying, not even when the Medieval script, translated by Mark J. Costello, echoes the fire and brimstone “Everyman’s” anonymous writer(s) laid on thickly to persuade 15th century audiences, believers or not, that death is imminent, and they must constantly keep themselves ready to answer to heavenly judges for their mortal souls.
Through all of the theatricality of his production, Cregan is careful to make sure “Everyman’s” moral is understood and has impact. His staging sheds light on a far earlier era from ours while shrewdly remaining in the context of today’s contemporary world. He leavens the play’s penchant for instruction with grand entertainment that makes “Everyman’s” lessons all the more apparent and moving. He and his company achieve the intention of “Everyman,” to send a severe message about redemption in the unavoidable hereafter, while providing an inventive spectacle that goes beyond anything that was ever presented in Medieval town squares or ever occurred to any 15th century priests who employed theater to influence illiterate masses.
Cregan’s masterful orchestration of the many facets that compose Villanova’s “Everyman” and the thrilling design work of Seth Thomas Schmitt-Hall on sets, Courtney Boches on costumes, Jerold R. Forsyth on lighting, Christine Nass on musical direction, and John Stovicek on sound conspire to provide a witty and fascinating evening of theater. The effect of their combined work is awesome in the pre-cliché use of the word, inspiring to wonder.
Just consider this list of brilliant ideas they have wrought.
Goods, a character representing material possessions, wears a pert hat and a skirt fashioned from posh retailers’ shopping bags. Beauty, another trait Everyman will have to thrust aside to earn salvation, layers her sleek black outfit with a robe of stringed golden beads, like strands of key chains, and revolves in a joyful dance until her garment forms spokes that radiate out like restorative sunlight.
Good-Deeds, representing the worthy acts Everyman has performed in life, is lashed to a steep wall that is set perpendicular to the stage at a 100-degree angle, from which she wriggles in useless and frustrating bondage until Confession, satisfied with Everyman’s contrition, can free her to come to her doer, Everyman’s, aid. That wall, an amazing construction that serves many purposes, is continually scaled and slid down by legions who negotiate the obstacle effortlessly with gymnastic, gravity-defying zest. Hours of rehearsal must have been spent on dealing the with wall alone.
Everyman is stripped of all adornment. Once her demise is known, and her purging process begins, spirits come in and take any frippery or finery including her red gown. She is left, for most of the play, in undergarments.
Death, who comes to announce Everyman’s fate, is a bald, hairy-chested man wearing a thin-strapped, sleeveless black leatherish Goth ball gown that encompasses his victims under its flowing skirt.
Lighting carries on the illusion of ritualistic synchronized arm movements a muscular ensemble has just finished performing. The effect is dazzling and continues the power of the sequence. Images projected on the wall tell stories of their own.
Music is integral to the production. All characters, whether representing a virtue or vice, boogie oogie oggie to a variety of sounds, most of them from 1970s pop. Song and suggestive dance pepper the proceedings, ranging from plaintive Medieval chants sung with righteous sincerity to a rendition of The Staple Singers’ 1972 crossover gospel classic, “I’ll Take You There,” designed to rock the Vasey auditorium to epiphany.
These examples don’t cover half of the cleverness with which Cregan and company, including his sterling cast, endow this production. Religion and theater are both admirably served. You wait as eagerly for Cregan’s next coup de theatre as you do with the next step Everyman must take to achieve everlasting peace and graciousness.
“Everyman” is the best known and most performed of the handful of morality plays extant from the Middle Ages. Priests used a variety of theater genres to educate a mostly illiterate population of the tenets of religion, primarily Roman Catholicism, and the horrors that await all who do not heed church warnings about salvation. The churches often figured into Medieval government, so failure to please the religious powers could consign one to a miserable life on Earth as well as being an impenetrable impediment to salvation. Morality plays, like mystery plays, miracle plays, and passion plays, were meant to inspire people to adhere to the church’s teachings and were usually performed in public on church steps or in town squares. Watching them was probably mandatory, although the church frowned on most forms of theater, art, or entertainment it did not provide.
Villanova’s “Everyman” retains the notion of total submersion to religion and good works being the route to eternal bliss, but rather than set its production on even an approximation of church steps (although many entrances to Medieval churches are as steep as Schmitt-Hall’s stunning wall), Cregan takes “Everyman” to the punk world of the 1970s. Carnaby Street and its various fashions are more prevalent than wimples and doublets worn on market day at the Guildhall. Cross-dressing, torn skirts, ragged sleeves and hems, flag emblems, particularly in the pattern of the Union Jack, are a key part of Boches’s costuming scheme. Actors use bold, irreverent gestures and punk rock dance moves. The Villanova cast looks good in its spiked, gelled hair, witty wigs, and amusingly conceived outfits.
The 70s fit the “Everyman” story. Everyman, played by a woman, as is only proper in an alternative production like Cregan’s, wants to take all of her worldly goods and best physical attributes with her when she departs Earth, as Death informs her will happen quickly. She must, however, relinquish goods, beauty, strength, discretion, and cousins and other kin, if she wants to be accepted into heaven. Knowledge can stay until near the end, and Good Deeds can smooth her path to salvation, but all must go.
When we meet Everyman, she is a smart bird on the 70s punk scene. She’s dressed in red. Goods tells us she shops in only the best places. There were no Wal-Mart or Sears bags on that skirt. Everything about Everyman tells us she is secure in wealth, poise, popularity, and sexuality. Some of those traits add dimension to the Medieval story.
All of the characters look cool and aim for raunch in their 70s gear. Dancing is practically non-stop.
Through all of the commotion, Cregan plots poignant moments as Everyman wrestles with whether a specific sacrifice or casting off is necessary or worth trading for admission to heaven. Even these contemplative, dramatic passages often have characters sliding down the steep wall to inveigle Everyman towards one direction or another.
Cregan’s cast seems to revel in and have fun with this counter-culture “Everyman.”
Hallie Martenson brings a dancer’s grace and an actor’s depth to the title role. She allows you to read confusion and torment in her expressions and motions while she also smiles with sophisticated pleasure at the possessions she’s accrued and takes on a beatific glow when Everyone has renounced the Earthly world, made confession, and awaits her doom and the salvation she expects (although it strikes me that expecting salvation may be the sin of pride or vanity).
Mitchell Bloom is appropriately sinister and serious as Death, who acknowledges he will touch everyone at some point, perhaps suddenly, whether they’re ready by ecclesiastic standards for salvation or not. Bloom approaches his role with a Shakespearean flair.
Victoria Rose Bonito dons Goods’s clever skirt with pride and poise. You can see Goods is content with Everyman’s choices of clothing and other possessions. Bonito preens and sashays in ways that show Goods’s playfulness and justifiable delight in Everyman’s taste.
Christine Petrini is both gymnastic and touching as Good-Deeds, the character who represents selfless or altruistic acts Everyman has performed without interest in gain. Attached by all four limbs and her waist to the wall, Petrini pleads convincingly regarding Everyman’s sincerity in charity and seems to suffer with Everyman, in the form of subjugation, until the worth of Everyman’s benevolence is deemed valuable enough for Good-Deeds to be set free. Once liberated, Good-Deeds continues to advocate for Everyman whenever necessary.
Villanova’s “Everyman” is an achievement of major proportion. It illuminates a seminal work of Western literature while capturing the look and feel of the cool 70s and exuding theatrical imagination at every turn. It joins the Walnut’s “Good People,” Wilma’s “The Convert,” Theatre Horizon’s “I Am My Own Wife,” and Arden’s “Parade” and “Stick Fly” as being among the most important theatrical events of the year. It’s worth making the time to see.
“Everyman” runs through Sunday, November 24 at Villanova’s Vasey Hall, on campus near the intersection of Lancaster Pike and Ithan Avenue, in Villanova, Pa. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $25 to $23 with discounts available for seniors, students, and Villanova alumni with an M.A. in Theatre. They can be ordered by calling 610-519-7474 or going online to www.theatre.villanova.edu.