God has just blessed Noah to populate the reborn Earth when the actors switch to weaving an intricate choral hymn — one sign that you’re not watching a typical play.
That was the scene recently at a rehearsal of “Everyman,” an ambitious new work being performed by the local The Next Stage theater company Aug. 6-16 at the State Theatre. Created by director John Hruschka, it blends early English theater with choral music and scriptural readings to tell a tale of humanity’s initial evolution.
“What we’re doing is unique,” Hruschka said.
In two acts, “Everyman” presents a trilogy, joining “The Deluge” and “The Three Marys” — examples of medieval “mystery plays” based on biblical stories — with “The Summoning of Everyman,” a seminal drama in which a representative man must assess his life on the spot when Death calls.
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Linking the stories are mostly obscure traditional English hymns paired with original music by composer Anne-Marie Hildebrandt, a Penn State music education doctoral student. She also arranged music for a William Blake poem, “The Divine Image.”
“Parts of this have been done in other places. ‘Everyman’ has been around since the Middle Ages, but this particular group of things, as an evening of theater, is brand new,” Hruschka said.
“Putting them together with original music was an enormous leap of faith for me. We’ve tied it all together with bits from the King James version of the Bible, so that it becomes a sort of coherent narrative of the creation of the Earth until we as humans are on our own and have to make our way in the world.”
That said, Hruschka wants to make one point clear. Despite its religious sources and themes, “Everyman” is not meant to be an elaborate Sunday school production. It might resonate spiritually for some, but it’s intended for a broad audience.
“This is theater, not theology,” Hruschka said.
As a theatrical experience, it will be a rare one.
It’s not hard to see Shakespeare done somewhere, but how many get the chance to enjoy one of the greatest playwright’s influences?
Young William would have seen his share of mystery plays, a popular form of entertainment for at least two centuries before his birth. They served to teach about the Bible when most people were illiterate and Masses were conducted in Latin.
As a boy, Shakespeare certainly caught the “The Summoning of Everyman” story performed in its usual venue, a church yard, by touring actors. One can imagine him soaking up every minute. For the 1500s, it was avant-garde, a major change in theater with its storyline and existential questions.
“He would have been absolutely fascinated with this stuff from the time he was a boy,” Hruschka said. “It was the television of the time.”
Hruschka points to similarities between an “Everyman” scene with God and Death and one with Puck and Oberon in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“I don’t have anything to prove this, but I think Shakespeare stole this and put it in his play,” Hruschka said.
At heart, though, the “Everyman” performances will remember another bard.
Jay Shuchter founded The Next Stage with his friend Mary Skees, the company’s current producing artistic director. A medieval drama expert, he always wanted to direct “The Summoning of Everyman,” but never realized his dream before dying last year.
Over coffee last winter, Hruschka and Skees discussed staging the play. At 35 minutes, its length was a problem — not exactly a night of theater for the price of a ticket.
Hruschka ruminated. How could he extend it? Then it came to him: compress the story of the Bible as best he could into two hours. He would add the mystery plays as the first act, make the Everyman saga the second, link everything with complex choral arrangements and pay tribute to his late friend.
“This is for him,” Hruschka said, tearing up. “It’s kind of in his honor that we’re doing all this. He was a great guy.”
Skees said Shuchter talked of incorporating dance into the “Everyman” story, but the challenge of choreographing routines to fit The Next Stage’s customary venue, the cozy State Theatre’s upstairs Attic, got in the way.
Not that squeezing in a cast of 11 to perform three plays and several hymns will be any more of a picnic now, but Skees is happy to see her friend’s wish for a hybrid performance finally coming true.
“I think he would have loved that it has a vocal component,” she said.
She’s also pleased to show an important piece of theatrical history, one of the seeds of modern drama. Unlike the mystery plays, “The Summoning of Everyman” fell outside the church, posing philosophical issues to which its audiences could relate personally. What constituted a good life? A good person?
“It was the beginning of telling stories that were about individual lives, their own lives, and this was a major shift,” Skees said.
For actor Wil Hutton, who has the plum roles of God in “The Deluge” and Death in the Everyman story, the production reminds of him of the progressive theater he did with his company, The Ironclad Agreement, in Pittsburgh in the late 1970s.
“It’s a chance to see something you probably won’t see again,” he said.
Or might: Hruschka half-jokingly calls the upcoming shows a “world premiere.” Perhaps beyond its debut, his trilogy — which he modestly describes as “a collage” assembled from found pieces — and Hildebrandt’s music will entertain and enlighten audiences beyond State College.
“The point of theater is to change people’s lives,” he said. “In the two hours you’ve got them, you want to change them, move them, scare them, make them laugh. You want them to leave different than when they came, and this is no exception.”