Isn't every man afraid that Death is a leather daddy?

Prim Reaper 

Isn't every man afraid that Death is a leather daddy?

Back in college, I organized my curriculum expressly to avoid the 16th-century morality play Everyman. But last week, anticipating Philip blue owl Hooser's musical production, I was curious. I imagined that, after the show, my mind would be reeling with Big Ideas. Here's a play in which God, angry at man for "living without dread in worldly prosperity," dispatches Death to bring Everyman to a reckoning, and Everyman learns the obvious lesson that your worldly wealth isn't piss in the bucket of the universe.

I looked forward to gabbing afterward about how we forget what really matters in this life. About the power of allegory and whether I can enjoy a play that gives speaking parts to Discretion and the Five Wits. About how, today, in mall-like churches with more plasma screens than stained glass, suburban evangelicals ignore Jesus' radical preaching against the perils of wealth.

Instead, I left wondering about camp. What to make of a production that concludes with rousing gospel numbers and an ascent into heaven but kicks off with Death done up as a leather daddy, sporting chaps, a tight burr of mustache and a chain-laced cap, strutting and singing to "Don't Fear the Reaper"? In an allegorical show in which Fellowship is played as an idiot frat brother and Discretion as a nebbishy lawyer, what the hell is Death doing camped up as comic gay stereotype?

Before we get to that, let's talk Everyman, the ultimate just-one-of-the-guys heroes. He's played here with nonallegorical humanity by George Forbes, who may be the greatest sufferer in Kansas City theater.

He's moving as Everyman, but he never forgets that the character is a stand-in, one of those "You Are Here" dots on a rest-area highway map. And he's everyman. (Sorry, ladies, but the play's 400 years old. )

Brad Shaw has a great time as Leather Daddy Death, twirling his chains and croaking out lines such as In the world each living creature, for Adam's sin, must die of nature. He and Forbes give their all, but they don't always connect with each other. Forbes is painstakingly naturalistic, not given to declaiming. He makes each verse sound like things someone might actually say given these circumstances. But Death, and everyone else, booms for the rafters. The effect is sometimes tiring: We lean in to hear Forbes, who is often weepily quiet, and then we shrink from the belters.

The chief belter is Hooser himself, playing God and some others. (He's also the director.) Smiling hugely, charming as can be, he talks not just from the diaphragm but from the center of the Earth.

Everyman tries to buy off the Reaper with a bribe, but Death's no fool: Out there in the metaphysical cosmos, who takes cash? Death persists in his mission, but before ushering his charge along to judgment, he grants Everyman time to gather witnesses, friends from this "vale terrestrial" willing to help make Everyman's case before divinity.

From there on, the show's a perfect little allegorical joke. Everyman prevails upon all that matters to him most — Kindred, Worldly Goods, Beauty and Strength — but finds none of them willing (or able) to accompany him to the end of all things. As the grave looms, Beauty flees him, then Strength, then discretion, etc. At the end, standing before a well-lit celestial staircase, Everyman is left with just Good Deeds and Knowledge. At the insistence of Knowledge, he gets himself baptized (a chance for Hooser to thunder out a winning "Wade in the Water").

Finally, birthed in spirit, unencumbered by the cares of this world, Everyman climbs those stairs.

Spooky in its cheeriness, still effective after centuries, Everyman gives us death as the ultimate happy ending, managing to scare and warm even a committed secularist like myself. The imaginative strangeness of Hooser's production helps. Whimsical pop and serious gospel enliven the sometimes stiff poetry; fog effects, a spinning stage and silly costumes offer effective atmosphere. Directed by Hooser and produced by Tyler Miller's TymeWorks, the show is distinguished by a level of craftsmanship not often achieved at Just Off Broadway. The sad exception: During quiet moments, that spinning stage creaks like a log-cabin orgy.

Still, the great question this Everyman stirred for me concerns neither mortality nor morality. Like I said earlier, it came down to camp. I thought the "Don't Fear the Reaper" number was outlandishly funny, but other people who have seen the show told me they were too confused to laugh. Is Leather Daddy Death supposed to be badass or ridiculous? And what about the other big pop songs here? How can songs that shitty — songs that karaoke and Late Night Theatre have trained us to laugh off even as we join in on the choruses — sit comfortably alongside the baptize-yourself seriousness of the ending?

What used to seem satiric or sarcastic now feels earnest, sometimes to the point of tonal and thematic confusion. Death here may be AIDS or something else, but most likely he's just dressed like that and singing that song because Hooser thought it would be funny. Or cool.

And it is, if you're in the mood. The songs in this Everyman may strike you as cheesy. But as Al Green has taught us, one man's pop is another man's gospel.

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