Review By Bradley Ward
When death comes for you, what will you get to take with you to the afterlife? Will family, friendships or your belongings provide any comfort when God has calls for you to take account of your life?
Some heavy question to start a review with, but that is the exact material that Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins concerns itself with. Based on 14th Century morality play Everyman, this modern adaptation introduces us to a dissatisfied God who has decided that one human should be brought before him to explain why they have lived their life the way they have. The human chosen is Everybody, who asks for the opportunity to bring someone to the afterlife with them to assist them in their presentation. Thus begins the journey of Everybody, who attempts to convince Friendship, Kinship, Cousin and Stuff to join them on their journey. Different concepts come and go, some imparting wisdom along the way, and ‘Everybody’ eventually steps through the door and into the afterlife, accompanied by the only companions that truly stay by our side at the end.
It is an odd task having to review this show, because the show that I saw will likely never be performed again. One of the central mechanics of the show is its lottery system, where five of the cast members have their roles drawn at random each night, which includes the role of ‘Everybody’. It is an intriguing premise, one that prompted numerous audience members to vocally consider attending a second show so they could see how it changed with other actors. It is a theatrical mechanic that begs for audience interpretation, or at least it would have if the meaning behind it – being a representation of the randomness of life and death – wasn’t outright explained by one of the characters. This moment is somewhat emblematic of the experience of watching Everybody: constantly experimenting with theatrical form and defying expectations, sometimes to its own detriment. Everybody is trying to wear so many hats at once that it begins to become unbalanced. It is, at different times and all at once: a piece of metatheatre; a modern adaptation of a classic morality play; a satire of classic morality plays; a radio play; and a movement piece. Add this to the fact that the narrative exists across multiple worlds (the fictional world in which ‘Everybody’ exists, the fictional world of the person who is telling the story about ‘Everybody’, and the real world of the audience watching the show) and the intentions behind some of the content becomes obfuscated. Are we being told a specific piece of information sincerely from within the world of the morality play? Or are we being told ironically from within the world of the satirical piece of metatheatre? Which pieces of information are we meant to interrogate, and which ones do we take at face value?
Now, none of this is a bad thing, but it is risky. To deal in so many worlds with so many layers of meaning, it is easy to lose your audience. Thankfully, the cast and crew behind Everybody makes it all look so damn easy. No matter how complicated the layers get, the cast handles it with such charisma, confidence and enthusiasm that you feel completely relaxed and at home within their world. This tone becomes important for some of the metatheatrical sections, as having performers invade an audience space can often be quite confronting or anxiety inducing for certain people. This anxiety never seemed to raise its head during the show I attended, as people happily laughed along with the show, feeling completely safe in the hands of this immensely talented cast. I do not envy the five actors who have to draw their roles at random, as it cannot be easy having to navigate the pressure of not knowing your role until the show has already started. If they at all struggled with this pressure, then the audience didn’t see it. They handled it with aplomb, bringing beautifully abstracted and exaggerated performances that contrast with some of the more realistic and painful things that ‘Everybody’ suffers later. ‘Everybody’ may be the title character, but they are nothing without the support of those four other actors.
Everybody is a complex play that walks a fine line between impressively intellectual and refreshingly sincere and sweet. If you like a piece of clean, linear theatre where meaning is spelled out clearly, then perhaps this show isn’t for you. However, if you’ve been looking for an excuse to get into a philosophical debate with a friend, then Everybody should provide everything you’ve been looking for. Buy tickets while you still can, preferably to multiple shows.
Image Credit: Clare Hawley
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.