What can be more challenging for an actor than playing God?
But at least he is coming home, so to speak, to do it.
That actor is Yonatan Gebeyehu, currently living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, but was born in Silver Spring and raised from the age of 10 in Potomac.
He joins the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) in performing “Everybody,” an updated version of medieval morality play called “Everyman,” penned by Washington, D.C. native playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who is a MacArthur (Genius) Fellow, Obie Award winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist.
In “Everybody,” five actors receive their roles every performance via lottery, playing up to 120 possible permutations. Some are attributes rather than actual characters.
There are only a few static characters: Death, Time, Love and God.
While Gebeyehu started out playing piano, it was two educators at Thomas S. Wootton High School – drama teacher Adam Graham and choir teacher Carla Ingram – who inspired in him a love for theater and gave him experience in musicals.
An incident while he was in college at Columbia University further cemented the theater love, but in plays rather than musicals.
“One of my teachers, Rebecca Guy, was on the faculty of The Juilliard School,” Gebeyehu said. “They were producing Balm in Gilead (by Lanford Wilson), and one of the actors had dropped out. She asked me to fill in.”
The actor said he was struck by how seriously the cast took the play and the energy they put into it.
“I hadn’t seen that kind of level before,” he said. “It was a heartfelt production. It was a different kind of skill set, which aligned more with what I wanted to do, especially with new plays.”
Since then, Gebeyehu has worked frequently in theatres all over New York, entertaining different audiences every night. However, he expressed delight at being at a theater as beautiful and prestigious as STC while being a part of this play.
“It’s a beautiful and very brave attempt to encapsulate the randomness of death,” he said. “It’s very ambitious.”
Speaking of ambition: Gebeyehu plays two other parts. One is an usher, who some audience members may not realize is a role, and Understanding. Fortunately, the three characters are never on stage at the same time.
So how does one play God? Some might expect a deep, booming voice and the height of authoritativeness. Think Morgan Freeman or Cecil B. DeMille.
But, said Gebeyehu, the play itself gives no description.
“I tried to think of people I would not like to see in a bad mood,” Gebeyehu said.
In the area for an extended period for the first time since relocating, Gebeyehu said he was amazed at how much theater shows are being performed in the county now. “It’s part of the fabric here. I could see a show every night.”
While a peripatetic life makes it difficult to study music, especially when the piano is your main instrument, Gebeyehu did recently buy a much-more-portable one: the ukulele. He also enjoys reading, especially plays and novels.
“It’s important to make time to do other things besides theater,” he said.
But the truth is, the actor added, that after intense rehearsals or performing, he just wants to go home and make dinner.
As for his next acting gig, Gebeyehu does not yet know what it will be.
“Part of me likes that,” he said. “There’s a beauty in not knowing.”
Wherever he ends up, Gebeyehu said, there is no other way he would rather spend his time than theater. “It’s an honor and a blessing.”
Staging “Everybody” is Will Davis, who has directed elsewhere in the D.C. area but is making his STC debut.
“Everybody” will play at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh Street, NW, D.C., from Oct. 15-Nov. 17. www.shakespearetheatre.org.