Anyone who remembers struggling to stay awake in a college humanities course is familiar with the medieval opus Everyman. Theater historians consider Everyman to be the best surviving example of the morality play, by which the church attempted to bring religious instruction to the masses via the popular form of theater.
By utilizing theatrical allegory, Everyman dramatized the universal struggle for meaning and offered its audience a practical road map for redemption based on its acceptance of church doctrine. It was written late in the 15th century (after 1485), and was a well-liked staple of the English stage a hundred years before the Renaissance ushered in the more secular age of Marlowe and Shakespeare.
The plot, or, more correctly, the argument of Everyman is as follows: The hero, Everyman, is informed by Death of his approaching demise. He has forgotten God in his search for riches and pleasure and is told that he must prepare to make his accounting before the Almighty. Loathe to leave Earth, Everyman tries to bribe Death to let him stay. Death relents to the point of allowing Everyman to seek a companion on the journey from which there is no return.
One by one, Everyman is turned down by those he solicits. Fellowship, Family, Goods and Riches all prove to be false friends. He falls back on Strength, Beauty, Discretion, Knowledge and his Five Senses, but in the end they all desert him save his Good Deeds. Weak from neglect, Good Deeds can only make the journey after Everyman does his required penance which, as every medieval Christian knew, meant receiving the sacraments, praying for forgiveness and submitting oneself to a goodly amount of flagellation and mortification of the flesh.
The play pounds home the idea that we can take with us nothing that we have received from this world, but only what we have given back. (Thus the necessity of following the church's strict guidelines for settling one's score with God is enforced.)
Co-directors Christopher Gibson and Elena Day have resurrected this hoary morality tale for the Mad Cow Theatre by interpolating its arcane language and representative characterizations into a freewheeling movement and sound piece with five performers playing all the roles. One can discern Gibson's contribution in the way the actors personalize the allegorical aspects of the script; Terrence Yip, Kimberly Gray, David Knoell and Sarah French are all able to make great sense of the rather ethereal virtues and vices they play, and Damany Riley, as Everyman, ably portrays an articulate, passionate and powerful representative of the human race.
An ex-player in Cirque du Soleil's La Nouba, Day leaves her mark in the compelling movements she has created for the actors to keep the momentum rolling forward, as well as the picturesque tableaux she has designed. Both give the work its strong visual foundation. Add some interesting vocal and stage sound effects, and the result is a refreshing throwback to some of the experimental group-theater exercises of the late 1960s.
Yet as interesting and inventive as the evening is, there is no getting away from the interminably repetitive austerity of the script. Though short by most standards (its 900 or so lines take about 80 minutes to perform), the language of Everyman soon begins to wear as thin as the drone of a too-long Sunday sermon delivered by an earnest but boring pastor. The dogma is relentless, and if one is not already predisposed to the theology which the play attempts to inculcate in its listeners, the memory of that long-forgotten humanities class begins to bubble up to the surface of one's consciousness.
"We get the idea, professor! So now can we move on to the Enlightenment?"