Let Us Be Sort of Your Managers with Regards to All Things Existential

At each turn, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Everybody is designed to get its audience members to project themselves onto its characters.  The house lights are up about half the time, preventing us from relaxing into the darkness.  Many of the actors begin the play among us, only joining their co-stars fifteen minutes into the show as a reminder that we too play these parts.  And the first scene, featuring an usher (Jocelyn Bioh) announcing a very strict cell phone policy—”Also, interesting fact: if your phone is on ‘Do Not Disturb’ or ‘moon mode,’ it is actually not off”—erases the typically-sharp distinction between play and real life.

Of course, this makes sense.  Everybody is a surprisingly faithful rewriting of the medieval miracle play Everyman, in which the title character is summoned by Death and God to account for his life and finds, to his increasing panic, that in fact he can’t bring it with him: one after another, Fellowship, Kindred, Strength, Beauty, and a host of other worldly concerns abandon him on his journey to the afterlife.  All that remains are his Good Deeds, which only find their legs after Everyman confesses, takes the eucharist, and scourges himself.  The goal, then, is for the viewers to evaluate their own religious condition and adjust accordingly.

Mr. Jacobs-Jenkinks’ take is more secular.  For him, Love (Chris Perfetti) is all that you can take with you, while God, who begins the medieval text by complaining that man has “all the creatures be to me unkind / Living without dread in worldly prosperity,” is up for debate: he may or may not exist, depending on your definition of “real.”  And then there is the matter of the title.  As with his brilliant An Octoroon, a slight change from the source material becomes a profound political gesture: this play is for everybody, regardless of gender.  Furthermore, in order to “more closely thematize the randomness of death while also destabilizing preconceived notions about identity, blah blah blah,” most of the actors are randomly assigned their roles each night (though, despite the presence of a bingo ball selector, I suspect the decisions are made before curtain).

Those who had the pleasure of seeing An Octoroon know what Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins is capable of.  The dialogue here, deliberately general, is virtuoso work.  In a spectacular monologue, Friendship (Lakisha Michelle May) blathers to Everybody (David Patrick Kelly) about a variety of subjects: “Oh man, Sports?  Sports!  Hey, have you seen that movie?  Have you watched that cable show everyone’s talking about?  Did you see the last episode of that other show everyone watches?  Did you hear that we are in a Golden Age of Television?  But don’t you also want to cut back on screens slash caffeine slash alcohol slash Gluten slash carbs slash red meat consumption slash media consumption, because, like, aren’t you so tired of the media? Aren’t you so tired of social media? But I liked all those pictures you put up of that small child slash animal in your family slash social circle.  Ugh, one of my parents is being so annoying.  How is your one family member that I always ask you about?”  Each of these lines is vague enough to apply to most of the audience, and yet specific enough to recall a particular conversation each have had.

At the performance I attended, Mr. Kelly cast a Lear-like form, his white, pointed beard and gaunt figure emphasizing Everybody’s corporeal frailty.  Ms. Bioh, an Octoroon alumna, perfectly captures the casual and ironic tone of Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins’ language.  However, it was Marylouise Burke, with a short frame and froggy voice that surely indicates she is someone’s favorite Midwestern grandmother, who stole the show with her wonderfully genial Death.  At one point, she squeals in high-pitched anguish, “This is already hard enough work without having everyone thinking you’re some sort of a bitch!” and for a moment, we feel sorry for Death.

Still, what is most impressive about Everybody is that it has taken the goals of the medieval morality play and successfully translated it for the modern viewer.  I doubt spiritual self-improvement has been a concern for most playwrights in the last five hundred years—certainly not of most major playwrights—and it was thrilling to find myself responding to theater on terms that are both ancient and somehow still relevant.  What would an account of my own life look like?  What continues beyond material reality?  And am I prepared for that dance of death, so beautifully rendered here with twelve-foot skeleton puppets?  This is something new in modern theater, and that cannot be said for most plays, good, bad, or great.

Everybody runs through March 19th at the Irene Diamond Stage.  480 W. 42nd Street  New York, NY.  1 hour 40 minutes.  No intermission.

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