Breathing life Into death


God (Keith Irby, left) and Death (Jase Parker, right) meet up in “The Summoning of Everyman.” (Edge of the Universe Players 2)

Let’s take some time out to think about the meaning of life, death and everything in between. Then go back to playing Candy Crush and pretending we’ll live forever.

That wasn’t an option in 15th-century Europe. Life was short, death was ever-present and stark morality plays like “The Summoning of Everyman” were light entertainment. (Get it? It’s like “every man.” Well played, Anonymous Medieval Playwright.)

“Summoning,” revived this month by Edge of the Universe Players 2, is “about a subject that has preoccupied man for a very long time,” director Stephen Jarrett says. “Which is how do you die? How do you prepare for it?”

In “Summoning,” Everyman is approached by Death with some bad news: God is calling him to the throne of judgment. He gets friends to go with him — including Fellowship, Beauty, and Goods and Riches — most of whom desert him when the going gets tough.

The play is obviously a product of its age. “At the time, medieval England and medieval Europe were preoccupied with death,” Jarrett says. “This is post-Black Death” — the 14th-century bubonic plague pandemic that makes a bird flu outbreak sound like a party.

Moreover, “the show was written by and for Catholics because everybody was a Catholic” back then, he says. So Everyman gets help along the way by going to confession and receiving Communion and extreme unction, with some self-flagellation thrown in for good measure.

“The production’s problem is how to make this relevant to everybody,” Jarrett says. “And also how to keep this old play from being a stiff, dusty [religious] drama.”

Jarrett knocked off the dust by adding a frame story (medieval actors arrive to put on the play), live music performed on medieval instruments, and period dancing. He describes the acting style as “absolutely colloquial” and says a major emphasis in rehearsal has been making sure every word can be understood by modern audiences.

He admits, though, that while the answer provided by the play (“CHURCH!”) may not resonate with everyone today, the question it poses is still powerful: How do we find comfort in a life that is certain to end?

“I think that for everybody, whether you’re Christopher Hitchens or the bishop of Minneapolis, the question resonates,” Jarrett says. “We just have many ways of dealing with it today.”

For Trivia Night
“The Summoning of Everyman” is a morality play, an instructional religious drama that uses allegorical characters, like Death or Vice or Good Deeds, instead of figures from the Bible or other individuals. (Those would be mystery plays.)

Melton Rehearsal Hall, Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW; Fri. through Nov. 24, $15; 202-393-3939, universeplayers2.tix.com. (Gallery Place)

Kristen Page-Kirby covers film for The Washington Post Express.
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