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Everybody: Yes, including you

by | Nov 29, 2021 | Review | 0 comments

Publicity shot for Everybody at Studio 58

Few of us know when our number’s going to be up; in this production, actors don’t know what roles they’ll play.
(Photo of Kevin Nguyen by Emily Cooper)

I love this show about as much as I’ve loved anything in two years.

Early on in Everybody, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s adaptation of the fifth-century morality play Everyman, Death, who kickstarts the action, says, “You’re all dying, starting now.” Of course, we’re all dying all the time, we’d just rather not think about it — and, the script argues, that’s to our detriment: fleeing into distraction, we fail to live fully.

Because this is a morality play, the characters and situations are archetypal. When Death randomly picks Everybody for imminent demise, they beg to be allowed company on their journey. Death grants them a brief respite to try to find someone brave enough to go to the grave with them. (Because the casting of Everybody changes with each performance, I’m going to use gender-neutral pronouns throughout this review.)

One of the things I love most about Everybody is that it is so deeply theatrical. Jacobs-Jenkins sets the play in a theatre, which is, like life, an arena of illusion. (Scholars believe Everyman may be based on a Buddhist fable.) As the action progresses, Everybody recounts a dream to other characters, their fellow doomed, and there are constant questions about what’s real and what’s a mirage. (Theatre relishes the space for self-awareness and reflection that its artifice allows.)

In the best use of the venue ever, set designer Emerenne Saefkow turns the Studio 58 stage into a little, red-velvet-draped, gold-columned theatre in the round. Passing from darkness through curtains on arrival, every audience member gets a theatrical entrance.

In director Kim Collier’s hyperkinetic production, actors race around the periphery, some haul a piano onstage while another cast member plays it, and, in a transcendent moment, they hold up tiny lights, creating a starry sky for Time and Death to contemplate.

Inevitably, the basic action of the story is predictable — we know from the get-go that it’s going to be hard for Everybody to convince anyone to sacrifice their life — but the variations are surprising.

The wit of those variations often arises from the juxtaposition of the play’s philosophical ambitions and the characters’ colloquial speech. “Remember that time we sort of hooked up? That was weird, right?” Friendship asks Everybody. Death can’t quite identify Time until they realize, “I used to date your brother, Space.”

In this everyday speech, we also recognize our own strategies of avoidance. Rather than taking responsibility, characters repeatedly blame “society and the goddamn media.” And, in an audacious riff, Everybody and another of the doomed muddy their perceptions with a petty argument about crypto-racism.

But Everybody isn’t heady, it’s embodied and that’s part of the point: one of the characters says, “I am very disrespectful to myself because my body is a mystery to me.” We create distance between our consciousness and our meat because our meat terrifies us, but, the play argues, if we hope to embrace death — and life — we must embrace our physicality. I won’t give away too much about the ending, but I will say that it encourages surrender — and it reminded me, piercingly, of accompanying a courageous friend to the brink of their death.

Because I wouldn’t have had such a rich experience of this play without the skill and commitment of the entire cast, crew, and design team, I won’t single out any more artists; doing so is antithetical to the exercise.

After all this praise, I hate to break it to you that Everybody’s run is already sold out and there won’t be a holdover. Let’s hope Studio 58 will able to bring it back somehow, or that you might be able to squeeze yourself in on a cancellation.

EVERYBODY by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Directed by Kim Collier. A Studio 58 production at Studio 58 until December 3. Tickets


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