C. S. Lewis The Great Divorce ~ Presented by the Fellowship for the Performing Arts At the Lansburgh Theatre

Jordan Wright
February 4, 2020 

Irish author and playwright C. S. Lewis wrote The Great Divorce in 1945 during World War II.  He had already abandoned the Church of Ireland, the religion he was born into, become an atheist for several decades, and by the time he wrote this, he had converted to the Church of England.  It was a long journey influenced by his good friend J. R. R. Tolkien.  The play is a stark, often humorous, moral wrestling about God, personal responsibility, and who’s going to Heaven and who’s going to Hell.  It is said to be Lewis’ idea of the purification of venal sins after death in purgatory.

Carol Halstead in “The Great Divorce” ~ Photo courtesy of Fellowship for the Performing Arts

First, you must accept the premise that God is omnipotent, all-seeing and all-knowing.  If you’re already on board with that, you can follow along as 24 different characters, portrayed by four actors, take you on a journey.  The characters leave Grey Town by bus to find themselves in a sort of limbo between Heaven and Hell challenged by guides and spirits who debate their stories.  The Narrator, described as a poet and a stand in for Lewis, describes their passage.  The participants are all on their way to Evil as they pass through a cosmic radiant abyss to arrive at their destination.

Some are angry at the world, while others are self-righteous or self-entitled disbelievers.  Some beg to return to Earth, while others see an opportunity for redemption, if they stay.  As they stumble around, limping on grass that has become spiked shards, they begin to intuit their fate.  As the apostate priest, George Macdonald states, “Good and Evil when they are fully grown, seem the same.”  But when he states that, “All who are in Hell, choose it,” the audience responds in audible agreement.

The Great Divorce – Joel Rainwater ~ Photo courtesy of Fellowship for the Performing Arts

The play is known to be a response to the popular view expressed in William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in which the poet imagines a point at which the differences between good and evil will somehow be resolved.  This concept is what inspired Lewis to write of their final divorce.

With Jonathan Hadley, Tom Souhrada, Joel Rainwater and Carol Halstead.

Produced by Ken Denison; Directed by Christa Scott-Reed, Adapted by Max McLean; Scenic Design by Kelly James Tighe; Projection Design by Rachael Cady; Costume Design by Nicole Wee; Lighting Design by Geoffrey D. Fishburn; Original Music & Sound Design; John Gromada.

Through February 9th at the Michael R. Klein Theatre at the Lansburgh Theatre at 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC, 20004.  For tickets and information and a list of U. S. tour cities visit www.FPATheatre.com or call the box office at 202.547.1122

Everybody ~ Shakespeare Theatre Company

Jordan Wright
October 23, 2019 

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ galvanic drama Everybody starts off innocently enough.  A roving narrator walks on and off stage instructing the audience on proper theater etiquette.  It’s a pleasant, meaningfully comedic, warm-up, yet it’s the sort of thing that throws you off your game before this existential exercise in Life and Death gets underway.

Elan Zafir as Beauty, Alina Collins Maldonado as Five Senses, Ayana Workman as Strength, Nancy Robinette as Death, Avi Roque as Mind, and Kelli Simpkins as Everybody. ~ Photo credit DJ Corey.

The play was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  And that says a lot.  But what’s just as interesting is the historical background from whence it is based.  Discovered as a 15th century medieval play, it was later adapted into a Dutch play that was influenced on a Buddhist fable.  As a morality play referencing sin, death and hell, it presents a universality that is palpable.

Nancy Robinette as Death, Clare Carys O’Connell as Time, and Yonatan Gebeyehu as Understanding ~ Photo credit by DJ Corey.

We meet God – a self-absorbed, arrogant, egotistical God who is snide and sarcastic and reveling in his omnipotence.  He’s actually very funny and so are the mortals, called ‘Somebodies’, because, well, they’re us warts and all.  When Death arrives, having been summoned by God to round up the unsuspecting Somebodies for their last ticket on earth, you’d be right on the money if you thought there’d be hell to pay.  “No one living gets away,” says Death ironically.

The cast of Everybody ~ Photo credit by DJ Corey

But oh, the angst and guilt when they are called to account.  Were they worthy of this life? Were they charitable? Can they be spared?  Everything devolves into utter chaos when God appears with a lottery wheel symbolizing the randomness of death.  “Is it all lies, delusions, nothingness?” the narrator wonders.  The sense one gets is an out-of-body experience, a wholesale questioning of life’s purpose.

Yonatan Gebeyehu as Usher and Nancy Robinette as God ~ Photo credit by DJ Corey.

Everyman wants to know if his death sentence is a dream or reality and we follow along as he desperately recounts his fears and insecurities, his faults and his beliefs.  Death has told him he can take someone with him, so he won’t feel so alone when his time is up.  Unsurprisingly, neither friend nor family will oblige him yet in those heartless rejections are some of the funniest bits of the dramedy.  There, and with ‘Stuff’.  The character represents the concept of all our precious stuff, how it controls our lives and how you can’t take it with you, not even a single treasured possession.  “I’m just a collector of inanimate objects,” one of the Somebodies grimly admits.

Alina Collins Maldonado as Stuff and Kellli Simpkins as Everybody ~ Photo credit by DJ Corey.

The part of Everyman is played by a rotating cast of actors with each performance… the randomness factor.  They are pulled from the group of five Somebodies and never know when they will be playing that particular role.  That, in and of itself, creates 120 possible cast combinations.  But Everyman is the most powerful role.  On Monday night Everyman was played by the Trans/Non-Binary actor, Avi Roque, who lent a powerfully cool street vibe to the character.

Avi Roque as Cousinship ~ Photo credit by DJ Corey.

I’d be utterly remiss if I didn’t offer up huge kudos to Director Will Davis who sums it up this way, “What does all of this, Life, possibly mean? What do we do if it means nothing?  And if it means nothing, how can I prepare myself for my own death – not to mention the death of others? How do I conceive of where my loved ones go – is ‘go’ even the right verb in this context?”  I’m sure that by the end of this deeply probative, wildly dramatic, visually stunning production you’ll be asking yourselves the same question.

A brilliant cast!  Highly recommended.

With Yonatan Gebeyehu as Usher/God/Understanding and Nancy Robinette as Death; the Somebodies are played by Alina Collins Maldonado, Avi Roque, Kelli Simpkins, Ayana Workman and Elan Zafir; Clare Carys O’Connell as Girl/Time; and Ahmad Kamal as Love.

Scenic Design by Arnulfo Maldonado, Costume Design by Melissa Ng, Lighting Design by Barbara Samuels, Sound Designer and Composer, Brendan Aanes, and Fight and Intimacy Choreographer, Cliff Williams III.

Through November 17th at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information contact the box office at 202 547.1122 or visit www.ShakespeareTheatre.org.