I mean, apparently not EVERYbody…
An adaptation of the medieval morality play Everyman, which we’re told (we are constantly being told things) was itself actually a refitting of a Dutch work … which was based on an even older Buddhist story, Everybody, going on now until November 17 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, is about death, life, god, the afterlife, and lots and lots of balloons. You might say it’s full of hot air, because frankly, for a show entirely focused on mortality and how everything gets stripped away, it seems in love with the bells and whistles.
Written by Branden Jacob-Jenkins and directed here by Will Davis, Everybody opens with an usher (Yonatan Gebeyehu) giving the audience a well-deserved “turn off your cell phones, unwrap your candy” warning. Don’t get too comfy though, because five minutes later the usher is rolling his eyes back in his head and channeling God, conversing with Death (Nancy Robinette) and ordering her to bring him Everybody so he can get an accounting of human beings and the mess we’ve made of life on Earth.
Five members of the cast, we’re told (stop telling us things!), hold a nightly lottery on stage to see who will wind up playing Everybody. The other four play Friendship, Kinship, Cousin, and Possessions, who all in their turn refuse to join Everybody on their journey beyond the veil. (Why even ask Possessions? Literally everyone knows you can’t take it with you.) The rotating quintet, with its mix of races and genders, is supposed to give a flexible take on what it means to represent all of humanity, with the added bonus of inconveniencing five actors with the burden of learning five roles each. Every night is a different show, which is cool, though once you’re locked into a particular casting, you can’t help but wonder what the other performers would have done with certain positions. Ah well.
The problem is that in a medieval morality play or a Buddhist fable, there’s a clear message to be had about living one’s life. Jacob-Jenkins, a playwright whose work has impressed me less than it has the people who award Pulitzer Prizes or MacArthur “genius” grants, has a very 21st century lack of interest in sermonizing. That’s generally a good thing, but this play’s endless philosophical examinations practically beg for lessons. When the usher comes back in at the end to tie a little bow on things, it feels like a less clever, not-as-funny version of the denouement of Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, where the answer is handed to us in an envelope by someone named Bridgette.
Anyone lived in a pretty how town, as e.e. cummings said, but Everybody lives up its own ass. Any given season of The Good Place has provided a better interrogation of the afterlife and the metaphysics of mortality.
By far the best part of this show is when Arnulfo Maldonado’s set impressively breaks away into emptiness, and there’s an eerie, beautiful danse macabre with balloon-animal skeletons. It’s classical, it’s an easily digested metaphor, and it’s a gripping visual. But perhaps it’s also just a relief for everyone to shut up for minute.
At one point, in one of several break-the-fourth-wall moments, a confused character said they usually like the kind of shows that go on here (meaning Shakespeare Theatre), but this one wasn’t doing it for them. There was a cold-hearted smattering of applause.