It was a battle with temptation from the moment we stepped in the door. The smell of roast meat and potatoes greeted the guests upon entering the open, glassed upper floor of the Levis Faculty Center, and a slice of dessert—a sweet, creamy cheesecake—already marked each individual place setting. As a play that dramatizes the Christian concept of psychomachia, the battle for the soul, the medieval morality drama Mankindrepresents humanity’s ongoing struggle to choose between good and evil. We playgoers were immediately placed in a similar subject position to that of its eponymous character, Mankind. Thanks to its status as dinner theater, the performance was framed by gluttony. Faced with a decision between the rigors of labor or the ease of carousing, Mankind struggled to decipher the rhetorics enticing her to travel down righteous or sinful paths—just as we struggled with how many times it would be appropriate to visit the open bar while sitting in the midst of leading medieval performance scholars.
The one-night-only performance concluded the planning stage of a pilot project, “Performing the Middle Ages,” funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities’ “Humanities Without Walls” initiative. Broadly, the initiative aims to cultivate an extensive consortium of humanities institutes across the Midwest, with this particular project bringing together medieval performance specialists from the Universities of Illinois, Notre Dame, Chicago, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State, and Purdue. The immediate implication of this framework for this particular performance was that the academic audience, while attentive and appreciative, was less willing to disrupt the action than had been anticipated by its directors. Not one Latin pun went without a guffaw, however, especially with the hand-held dry erase boards as visual aides.
The tension between the desire to adhere to original practices and the rifts that anachronism might present to authenticity did not go unaccounted for by the directors, Kimberly Fonzo and Anne Hubert, both doctoral candidates at the University of Illinois. Considering that the play includes characters with names like Nowadays, compelling material compromises were struck that productively addressed the contextual temporal layers between the fifteenth and twenty-first centuries. For example, the youthfully petulant Newguise (Ella Lubienski), Nowadays (Michelle Zacarias) and Nought (C.J. DeDevitis) wore blended costumes that seemed stuck out of time, mixing present and period signifiers. Drumsticks, cell phones, denim and low-top chucks were placed alongside doublets and hose. These were also the performers most willing to break down barriers [End Page 559]between character and audience. Dinner rolls were often grabbed from diners’ plates to be nibbled and left on another table, thrown at Mercy, or off-handedly lobbed across the room. By localizing the conditions of the performance in costuming and libation, the directors gave the play’s larger themes of sin and salvation exigency and temporal purchase.
This is not to say that the production conditions didn’t adequately estrange the audience through conventions that suggested the mental furniture of medieval habits of mind. While the promises of scatological humor provide the initial hook of such a play (and the poop jokes were many, including prop feces indelicately wiped off onto a patron’s chair), couching the comedy was the exploration of the competing sermon rhetorics deployed by the rival preachers Mercy (Nick Stanko) and Mischief (Stephanie Svarz). Mercy and Mischief wore simple parallel white costumes that helped visually to reinforce their opposing positions in the battle for Mankind’s soul. Mercy, the quintessential cleric, provided helpful parables to promote spiritual understanding in a dry, Latinate, and too-rhythmic...