Everymen: Actors Theatre of Louisville’s The Glory of the World
What I remember about Everyman, the 15th (I think?) century morality play taught in many theater history surveys: next to nothing. It’s allegorical, performers act in the role of virtues, there’s a journey, maybe a choice? God weighs in? So, what does that have to do with Charles Mee & Les Water’s circus-like symposium on the legacy of Thomas Merton: not much. But the projected typed questions during the silences that frame the show like, “How do I live?” “What is the question: salvation, damnation?” and “Who can explain these things?” brought it to mind. That, and the uniquely all-male cast.
Glory wants us to ponder big questions about the nature of the sacred, the finitude of life, and the mindful, foolish, and non sequitur choices made along the way. But mostly it indulges – in self-conscious and parodic ways – with stereotypes of masculinity in a Full Monty meets Fight Club in a frat house kind of way. Asked if we’d like to see something amazing, one beefy young man smashes beer bottles into a tub, takes off his shirt, and does a headstand atop the shards. He rises, hyperbolically bloodied and light-headed. Men are “men,” bombastic braggarts, crooners, know-it-alls, and cocktail guzzling football fans who are pretty easy to laugh at, but hard to tune out.
Merton, alternately toasted as Buddhist, Communist, Catholic, hermit and party-animal, could have been any fill-in-the-blank figure with a contested past. I didn’t learn more about him, which wasn’t the show’s purpose anyway. Instead, the radically contradictory ways his life is remembered, and held in cultish regard, becomes more important than the man himself. His celebrants, a Benetton-ad collection of 17 men, behave in stereotypically gay and straight ways – showing-off muscles, literally “arm-chair” philosophizing from Barca loungers, flying a remote-control helicopter, and playing pool in an industrial garage. In one particularly funny moment, the guys’ competitive body-builder poses intensify into a choreography that momentarily resembles Alvin Ailey’s “Revelation” on steroids with stripper flourishes.
Throughout, they play recurring games of six-degrees of separation, attempting to out-quote one another in associative chains linking Reagan to Mae West, Marx to Christina Applegate. This one-upmanship to properly commemorate Merton drives the show’s evolution from quiet contemplation to affable disagreement, building to an all-out violent cacophony. The party mood is disrupted when one man randomly takes a stand and insists he’s serious about Merton’s Buddhism. A sibling-style fight arises, complete with “titty-twisters” and punches, rapidly escalating into a Bacchanalian of men beating and abusing one another in increasingly absurd and disturbing ways. One guy “plunges” himself manically in the chest while others chase each other with garden tools. But the cartoonish battles with shovels and skateboards escalate to knives, chainsaws, and guns. They gang-up and strip one man naked, accompanied by Prodigy’s “Smack my Bitch Up.” To my ears, the techno lyrics have always sounded like “take my picture” and the connection to the Abu Ghraib abuses imbued the senseless, kind of silly spectacle, with a certain amount of shame. Some audience members continued to laugh – some near me even clapped along as things got worse and worse. I suppose that afternoon, when I could hardly laugh while others couldn’t hold theirs in like involuntary hiccups, the show succeeded in blurring the lines between the sacred and profane, the serious and the irreverent. A stack of pizzas arrives and the fight scene ends just as arbitrarily as it began.
There were certainly other delightful moments (in a tight production that I learned was independently funded by an aspiring theater producer’s Powerball win!). Two men in blue speedos set up a sprinkler on stage and mime a synchronized swimming routine – at times fluid, at others their bodies ungracefully slap the floor like beached fish. Later, the ensemble eats birthday cake, like overgrown kids squeezed into tiny wooden chairs. A witty stretch of dialogue riffs on how different ideologies would say, “shit happens” – from the atheist’s “what shit? I can’t believe this shit” to the narcissist’s “I am the shit.” And, I was initially taken in by the language in the opening projections, especially when we’re asked to conjure the “sound of a bike or an insect” and imagine a “bubbling metallic” sonic environment punctuated with “clicks,” “crunches” and “slithers.” It was fun to hear the ambient hum of the Harvey Theater and take part in silently conceiving the first sounds of the show.
In what felt like a never-ending litany of philosophical questions at the end of the show, one in particular: “Who could tell where I would have ended?” reverberated on a few interesting levels. I wondered if it referred to Merton’s life, the play itself, Mee’s life, maybe my own? What if I died in the midst of behaving like a total ass? We never know which moments will end up weighing more than others; if binge-watching Netflix will simply be how we passed an evening or our last banal act of living. But, ultimately, even in those protracted silences, I had a tough time meditating on the ontological questions. Inside the man-cave, I couldn’t hear myself think.