Medieval morality plays, instructive texts intended to convince audiences to lead more pious lives, served as a sort of early prototype for the after-school special. At the outset of the classic morality play Everyman, God sends Death to summon the title character. Unprepared for a reckoning with God, Every asks to bring someone along on the journey, only to discover that friends, family, and material goods – everything Everyman thought important – refuse to come along, and that ultimately, only good deeds can follow man beyond the grave. Fittingly, the current production at Looking Glass Theatre, which purports to produce theater while “exploring a female vision,” features a female Every (Charlotte Purser). That raises the question of how shifting the gender of a character intended as a prototype for all humanity affects a story. Under director Shari Johnson, the answer is: not much. Save its gender-bending casting, this is a production that allows the text to speak for itself, without grafting contemporary choices or questions onto it.
When it works, it does so because the themes of the 500-plus-year-old-play continue to resonate today. Though the play is steeped in the rhetoric and beliefs of Medieval Catholicism, as a parable, it favors universal abstraction over explicit cultural specificities. Each of the characters (Fellowship, Knowledge, Good Deeds, etc) is a personified form of an abstract idea.
The Looking Glass production opens majestically, with several cast members performing the role of God as a choral recitation. Calling down to the audience from above the stage, they appear to the audience as a formless celestial being wrapped in lighting designer Rachelle Beckerman’s awesome gold pinpricks of light. Once the action of the play becomes earthbound, so do the actors. Scenic designer Wheeler Kincaid’s set is covered in brown ropes and sack cloth; costume designer Mark Richard Caswell has outfitted the actors in earth-toned ensembles evocative of the Middle Ages.
Performing a singular quality poses an interesting acting challenge; The Looking Glass production would be stronger if Johnson had the cast meet it more uniformly. At times, the actors nail the personification of the ideas they embody, as when Kimberlee Walker portrays Strength with a buoyant confidence and Anne Gill depicts Discretion by carefully parsing her thoughts. Elsewhere, embodiment of a performative quality takes a backseat to pure enthusiasm performing; Megan Gaffney’s Knowledge is bursting with earnest energy but never comes across as, well, knowledgeable. The production is at its best in scenes that embrace the play’s explicitly instructive nature while remaining mindful of its details. Phillip Chavira and Jonah Dill-D’Ascoli in particular stand out as Kindred and Cousin, achieving a familial rapport while taking real pleasure in the presentationalism of their roles. It would be nice to see that balance of qualities elsewhere in the production.
The power of the morality tale in the Middle Ages surely derived, in part, from the steadfast belief of the performers in the profundity of their message. Yet, a sense of urgency and weighty import is absent from this production. In its place is a faithful presentation of a historic text. History buffs should take note.