Is it possible for an everyman to be a leader? Can an everyman be a woman?
Ameenah Kaplan, who calls herself a "hybrid" -- the product of an African American mother who converted to Judaism and a Jewish father -- is directing, choreographing and co-producing "Everyman for Himself." Appearing weekends at the Unknown Theatre in Hollywood, the show is a hybrid itself, in that it blends music, dance, theater and capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian dance form that incorporates self-defense maneuvers. Kaplan also wrote and conceived the production and, indeed, thinks of herself as an everyman.
Shaped by Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," Kaplan, 31, grew up in Atlanta, where she was bat mitzvahed and confirmed and where, she says, she would "float into different communities and never really fit into any of them." As the only non-Christian among blacks, the only black among Jews, she says, "you'd be in a room and nobody sees you."
Everyman, the title character in her show, played by Michael Gallagher, is both invisible and conspicuously visible. Where the other ensemble players paint their faces and wear togs like members of an African or Indian tribe, Everyman looks like a stiff businessman, donning a tie, starched shirt and long pants.
"Go with the flow," is one of the adages he reads from a book, yet Everyman never quite fits in. He is singled out by one female character, who engages in a kind of martial arts match with him that is equal parts seduction and boxing.
None of Kaplan's characters have traditional names; instead, they sport generic titles like Ball Girl, Judge, Bee and Boss. With the beat of African drums playing in the background as the ensemble characters teach Everyman to dance, there is the sense that we are witnessing an ancient ritual among primal beings.
In the production notes, Everyman is billed as a Buster Keaton/Charlie Chaplin "genius/fool"; he appears awkward, a modern man, exposed as if for the first time to the world of conformity that dates back to our days as early Homo sapiens in the Horn of Africa.
"People are essentially primal anyway," says Kaplan, sitting on a couch in a lounge down the hall from her actors' rehearsal hall. Wearing a head wrap that conceals her afro, Kaplan says, "We're all simple and alike at the bottom. My acting training taught us that. Come into the room, get your shoes off and build the actor from the ground up."
We share more than not, she says, pointing out "the visceral body connections celebrating those things that bring us together -- sound, energy, drums, heartbeat, blood flowing."
Kaplan has the slim, athletic body of a dancer; she has played numerous TV and legitimate theater roles, and sees herself first as an actor. She smiles when asked if she was somewhat conflicted over not playing the lead role herself, but she says that Gallagher embodies Everyman. She also stresses that every actor in the show contributes as much as the others. All of the actors play multiple roles: "The ensemble is the show. There are no supporting roles. No one's playing crossword puzzles backstage. There are no cigarette breaks."
One scene flows into the next, each one carrying totemic significance. The smallest prop -- whether it's a book, a jacket, a ball or a handkerchief (a nod perhaps to "Othello") -- becomes a talisman in this primordial landscape, where the characters speak very few words and those they do are often monosyllabic.
Everyman may be more Jesus than Adam. He must choose whether to fight or kill another man. Unlike the others, he is consumed with grief.
"What he's going through is the human condition," says Kaplan, whose work ethic really comes through in person. Reluctant to leave her actors for an interview, Kaplan never loses her graciousness and generosity; she has the maturity and seriousness of one who knows that, without her, the play will not proceed. Even during the brief interview, she wants to make sure that the actors are OK. At one point, she tells the stage manager that the actors will need her to be there for the next scene, involving some dance routines that they have not tried before.
As the interview ends, Kaplan, the everyman, springs to her feet with the physicality of Keaton. She will direct her cast without any crossword puzzle or cigarette breaks. She is anything but invisible.
"Everyman for Himself" plays Friday and Saturday nights at Unknown Theater, 1110 Seward St., near Santa Monica Boulevard, through April 29. For tickets and information, call (323) 466-7781.