Death, being universal, unknowable, and utterly final, has been a target of artistic inquisition for ages. One such exploration is Everyman, the medieval morality play by Anonymous and the source of The New Theatre Project’s latest original contemporary production, The Everyman Project. The product represents months of development on the part of the ensemble and production team, as together they scrutinized the conclusiveness death brings and found it reflected in their own experiences.
The production is predicated on identifying moments at which we realized that our lives have immediately and irrevocably changed. In this collaborative adaptation, playwright Jason Sebacher and director Ben Stange framed this question as the base point for developing the original script, which establishes a loose quadrilateral of relationships among its performers (using their own names) and introduces them all to their most essential commonality: death itself. After a ritualistic, guttural group scene introducing distinctive onomatopoeic sounds and mantras, the narrative begins with the aftermath of an auto collision that spins out into scenes of Elise Randall’s gorgeous lamentation with her hospitalized, dying mother (portrayed by Analea Maria Lessenberry). Randall realizes her moment in a lonely monologue, then she suddenly and literally crosses paths with death.
Here, death is a cocky, smirking young woman, played to the hilt throughout by Luna Alexander. When she’s not trilling rhymes from the original Everyman text about heeding and reckoning and obedience, she’s an obtuse, sassy, cigarette- and weed-smoking layabout who gets a kick out of people’s attempts to rationalize, cajole, and subvert her. Alexander tags along with Randall as she simultaneously recounts and recants an awful young romance with Ben Berg, when she ties her self-worth to a horny kid who in turn evaluates her only in terms of how she serves his needs. Later, Alexander peels off to join Berg and Andrew England in their own moments, both men variously unable to come to terms with things they don’t accept about themselves. The scenes and timelines bleed into each other in uncertain ways, and the production remains intentionally vague on the specifics behind this corporeal manifestation of death; still, the path to each moment, however circuitous, is rewarding, and the moments themselves crest artfully over the flowing beats that do not let up for any of the play’s single act. Eventually, the story comes full circle, giving Lessenberry a fond and wistful mantra of her own that brings back Randall as a younger version of herself.
The project also marks the theater’s first production in its new permanent space, an open loft with a bohemian coffeehouse feel. Found lighting elements by Keith Paul Medelis add to the do-it-yourself invitingness of a space in which the performers warm up onstage prior to the show. Many of the production elements were contributed by the ensemble, including Berg’s distinctly signaling sound cues marking the moments and passing stories and Randall’s costumes, neutral-toned and allowing the performers to incorporate movements inspired by yoga. Lessenberry’s airy catch-all set design ingeniously conceals a number of ordinary but key properties by Alexander, who is also credited as composer. Her song provides a goofy little coda that seems to give death a home among our everyday encounters; this is a lyrically curious ditty that proves a laugh riot in performance, a topper to a characterization both strangely aloof and far more fun than it has any right to be. A final nod to the inclusiveness of the experience comes in the small labels pasted to the stage floor; blanks are distributed to the viewers, who are encouraged to ponder their own moment and leave it on the stage as an anonymous contribution to the collaborative effort.
It’s a rare show that can coax chortling laughter and burning tears and make both components feel equally vital and deserved. But here, humor and loss are both entirely at home in The Everyman Project, a production that swims around and through its main theme with elusive deftness and an eye for perspective. The result is a thorough and personal examination of the project’s central question that conscientiously avoids being too indulgent, a meandering journey that feels comprehensive yet to the point.