Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Theaters in Chicago go a little nuts at Christmas, trying to figure out what audiences want. While a few mount shows that spoof or sneer at the holiday (Reckless, A Christmas Twist, The Eight: Reindeer Monologues), most gamely swim along in the wake of Goodman Theatre’s Christmas Carol, looking for material that embraces–or milks–seasonal sentiments of family togetherness and spiritual redemption without making too much of the occasion’s religious significance. This year’s entrants in the warm but wintry sweepstakes include The Christmas Schooner, Hans Brinker, The Secret Garden, Into the Woods, The Sound of Music, Little Women, Christmas by Remote Control, A Child’s Christmas in Wales and Other Holiday Tales, In the Heart of Winter, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, Nutcracker: The Musical on Real Ice, and Bubbe Meises: Grandma Stories, not to mention half a dozen Christmas Carols besides Goodman’s. Hell, even the rude ‘n’ raunchy Annoyance Theatre is doing Frosty the Snowman.

Seldom in this festive flood does Jesus Christ get mentioned; most holiday shows reach out to the most pluralistic constituency possible and steer clear of theology. But Steppenwolf Theatre in Everyman dares to be different. Frank Galati’s staging of the 500-year-old “moral play,” a religious pageant symbolizing humanity’s inevitable date with death, is unabashedly steeped in medieval Catholicism at its most cultish. As Everyman heads toward the final reckoning–forsaken by Goods, Beauty, Strength, and other allegorical archetypes and supported only by Good Deeds–references to God, Jesu, and Mary permeate the anonymous text, as do nods to penitential flagellation, extreme unction, and the all-important role of the clergy: “Therefore let us priesthood honor, / And follow their doctrine for our souls’ succor. / We be their sheep, and they shepherds be / By whom we all be kept in surety.”

Steppenwolf’s Everyman stands apart from its competition by promoting old-time religion. Christmas shows are supposed to be festive and colorful; Everyman is dark and austere. Christmas shows are supposed to make us feel good about getting together with friends and family; Everyman’s hero is abandoned by Fellowship and Kindred. Christmas plays are supposed to celebrate gift giving; the only present Everyman gets is a severe beating, delivered by the angel of Death in Steppenwolf’s production. (In the text, the scourge is self-administered.) Well, that and salvation–as defined in the sadistic, superstitious terms of plague-ridden, pre-Reformation Europe.

To be sure, Everyman addresses timely yet universal concerns. “Drowned in sin…the people do clean forsake me,” proclaims God. “They use the seven deadly sins damnable, / As pride, covetise, wrath, and lechery / Now in the world be made commendable.” Things haven’t changed much since 1495, the year Everyman’s Flemish predecessor Elckerlijc was published. A script like this can’t help but prod theatergoers concerned about a materialistic society spiraling out of control into introspection. The dark, sparely decorated stage is dominated by a towering industrial elevator that transports God to and from an unseen heaven, and the evocative simplicity of John Paoletti’s set is enhanced by Kevin Rigdon’s lighting (including enough candles to make the Phantom of the Opera jealous). Galati creates some striking images, such as Everyman’s final descent into the grave, his shadow looming higher and higher up the back wall as he goes deeper and deeper, and the final flight of a white dove over the audience’s heads.

The performers, dressed in casual contemporary clothes, convey the poetry’s heartfelt ideas and fluid metric and rhyme schemes cleanly and directly. Cheryl Lynn Bruce is especially effective as a compassionate but determined Death. Also good are Johnny Lee Davenport’s Strength, Lou Ferguson’s God, adolescent Jay Kiecolt-Wahl’s Five Wits, and Kyle Hall’s Beauty; unfortunately, Alan Wilder’s sleazy Goods, Marilyn Dodds Frank’s country-hick Kindred, and David Alan Novak’s faggoty Cousin rely on cheap-shot stereotypes (does he really have to flip a limp wrist when he says “thither”?). Everyman is played on different nights by one of four actors, reportedly chosen randomly at each performance; Mariann Mayberry, the only Steppenwolf ensemble member of the four, was picked to play the part on press night, and her initial reaction to being told her time had come was touching and forceful. But as the script grew less and less universal and more and more doctrinal and specific, Mayberry’s acting got more and more whiny; she lacked the sense of emotional transformation that would have made the play transcend dogma.

The production’s most memorable and beautiful element is the singing of the Windy City Gay Chorus; indeed, the show would have been much stronger had Galati integrated the singing with the drama, in the manner of The Song of Jacob Zulu or Goodman’s Gospel at Colonus. But instead the singers sit behind the actors while musical director Edward Zelnis conducts from the sidelines, occasionally leading a call-and-response in his clarion tenor. Here making their “legit” theater debut, the singers perform a collection of medieval plainsong occasionally augmented by more modern selections–a rousing Baptist hymn, a dissonant chorale that recalls the Gyorgy Ligeti compositions featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey, a rendition of Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” to satirize the Christmastime commercialism symbolized by Goods.

Windy City’s proudly homosexual members have been combating prejudice through sheer musical quality for more than 15 years, most of that time under the brilliant but contentious guidance of deposed musical director Richard Garrin and more recently under the baton of Garrin’s successor, Welborn Young. Galati’s declaration in a Stagebill interview that the group’s presence “is a way of confirming the humanity…and the morality of that constituency” is laudable, but there’s an irony here too: a lot of the people likely to buy into Everyman fully would find a gay chorus about as welcome as Disney World hosting an AIDS benefit.

The specter of AIDS looms over Steppenwolf’s Everyman, and not just because its opening coincided with World AIDS Day. Speaking to a culture ridden by plague, the play focuses on death as a phenomenon that “comest when I had thee least in mind,” as Everyman says, challenging us to focus on our most lasting values and inviting us to make the most of life yet not to resist death. But Galati’s production can’t help getting bogged down in the particulars of the play’s religious world; aiming for a transcendent theatrical experience but lacking the requisite terror and exultation, it delivers an occasionally interesting, sometimes tedious exercise in church history.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.