When contemplating 15th-century morality plays, most people don’t typically think of Virgil cyborgs, contemporary jazz and abstract video. But in “The Museum of Life + Death,” an adaptation of the medieval play “Everyman,” conventional thinking doesn’t enter into the equation.
“Museum,” which is playing at the Duderstadt Center through Sunday, is set in the distant future after the extinction of the human race, and follows the journey of Everyman as he tries to prove his worth to Death. Revamped for modern times, the play is a collaborative project between Andy Kirshner, an assistant Prof. in the schools of Art and Design and Music, and Mark Anderson and Isabelle Kralj, who run Milwaukee Dance Theatre, a professional theater company.
It arrives fresh to North Campus’s enormous video studio after its maiden performance in Milwaukee.
“‘The Museum of Life + Death’ combines music and theater in a way that not many people have seen before,” Kirshner said. “It integrates technologies borrowed from film, but at the same time, I’m also really committed to the idea of live performance, so I am hoping to bring in the best of both worlds.”
Combining computer animation, video and photography with a grandiose soundtrack, “Museum” powerfully brings the distant future into the present: Costumes are austere and the actors are eerily inhuman in appearance. Everyman, played by Anderson, dresses in a gray suit and a white mask with a shaved head. He does not speak during the performance, but instead acts to prerecorded dialogue and music on a nearly empty stage. Everyman’s ambiguous identity is more than his namesake – it’s also his strongest asset, allowing literally everyone in the audience an opportunity to relate to him.
The minimal cast and evocative score detach the production from any sense of era or place, providing an innovative twist on the reworking of a play previously grounded in medieval values of piety and anti-materialism. The result is stark insight into the struggle of recognizing and accepting death.
“I used a lot of the original text, but a lot of the ideas behind that piece had to be changed to reflect modern times,” Kirshner said. “One of the strengths of writing pieces that take place in the future – science fiction – is that (they) can comment on the time you’re in now. Things that seem ordinary now can be selected and revealed through science fiction.”
But despite the play’s dark theme, its content is far from overwhelming gloom.
“It’s funny, even though it’s about death – there’s a lot of good sex jokes – and the question of how we deal with our own mortality is something that we all need to address in our lives. It’s a way of looking at death that we can handle, and it gives the audience a way to look at death that’s not terrifying,” Kirshner said.
The Museum of Life + Death
Now through Sunday
At the Duderstadt Center