Review: ‘Everybody’ at California Shakespeare Theater (****)

by Charles Kruger

Death (Victor Talmadge) spins the lottery wheel as the five Somebodies (L to R: Sarita Ocón, Lance Gardner, Jenny Nelson, Jomar Tagatac, and Stacy Ross) wait to see which characters they will be playing in the evening’s performance. (Photo Credit: Alessandro Mello/
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

At only 33 years old, playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is a force to be reckoned with in the American theatre. His many awards include an Obie, a Fulbright scholarship, a MacArthur “genius” grant, a Paula Vogel award, a Windham-Campbell Literature Prize (Yale University), and more. He is currently a member of the prestigious Signature Theatre Residence Five Program (since 2013), and “Everybody” received its world premiere at the Signature Theatre (off-Broadway) a year and a half ago, in January of 2017.

Well. With qualifications like that, one comes to his work with high expectations. “Everybody” does not disappoint. It is a brilliant adaptation of one of the oldest plays in the English language, the medieval morality play, “Summoning of Everyman.” Of what summoning does it speak? You guessed it. If you must ask for whom the bell tolls, well, it’s you and me and all the rest of us. And we are summoned, of course, to die.

Jacobs-Jenkins’s retelling of the story retains the ligaments of the medieval plot, but his characters speak in a relaxed, contemporary rhythm using easily accessible language. The playwright’s ear is excellent, and his archetypal characters with names like “love” and “friendship” and “beauty” may indeed be archetypes, but they never sound arch.

God opens the play. As winningly played by Britney Frazier, God (Goddess?) is powerful but kind, stubborn but open-minded, and concerned with everything from the fall of a sparrow to whether the audience remembers to turn off all cellphones.

Death makes a quick entrance, and begins calling everybody up from the audience. He is a busy fellow. Of course the “everybody” that he calls turns out to be an actor playing the character “Everybody” but the point is not lost.  Victor Talmadge as death might well look you right in the eye and send a chill down your spine. This is a witty play, but the wit has an edge, obviously.

Besides the characters of Death, God, and Time (this IS a medieval morality play, after all), there are five actors identified in the program as playing “somebody.” Which somebody will each play? That is left up to chance in the form of a cage full of marked ping pong balls, presented by death, from which each of the five actors selects a role for the evening. (There are 120 possible combinations.) One actor becomes Everybody, who must accompany death to the throne of God and account for his or her life. The other actors will play Beauty, Friendship, Stuff, and All The Shitty Things. Apparently, these characters have no last names.

In the course of the performance, Everybody (played by the great Stacy Ross on opening night) will attempt to persuade each of the others to accompany her on a journey to the grave. It is not a surprise to find that they resist. After all, you can’t take it with you.

Later, Love makes an appearance, played every night by Avi Roque, who is splendid. Roque is a performer who is clearly non-binary, and they (Roque’s preferred pronoun as stated in the program) are hauntingly and appropriately effective as Love. It is grand to see a non-binary performer in a non-binary role. More of that, please.

“Everybody” takes us on a disturbing journey, to be sure, forcing us to contemplate personal mortality, but there is much to amuse along the way. Nina Ball’s interesting set incorporates decorated panels that seem to bring the surrounding landscape right up onto the stage, and a traditional trap door is used extremely well. Janni Younge’s marvelous puppets make an enchanting appearance, and are beautifully manipulated as guided by movement choreographer, Rami Margron.

Anybody might be pleased by “Everybody” and nobody should just stay home if the theme makes them uncomfortable. Being brought face-to-face with death is rarely this much fun.

“Everybody” plays at California Shakespeare Theater through August 5, 2018. For further information, click here.

Rating: **** (for an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

“Everybody” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, presented by California Shakespeare Theater. Director: Nataki Garrett. Scenic Designer: Nina Ball. Costume Designer: Naomi Arnst. Lighting Designer: Xavier Pierce. Sound Designer: Jake Rodriguez. Puppet Designer: Janni Younge. Fight Director: David Maier. Movement Choregrapher: Rami Margron. 

Cast: God/Understanding: Britney Frazier. Somebody: Lance Gardner, Jenny Nelson, Srita Ocon,Stacy Ross, Jomar Tagatac. Love: Avi Roque. Death: Victor Talmadge. Girl/Time: Alexandra Van De Poel. 

Note: The five actors listed above as playing “somebody” might play any one of five characters as selected by lottery at each performance. The five possible characters are: Everybody, Beauty, Friendship, Stuff, and All The Shitty Things.

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