A Danse Macabre for Everybody, at Cal Shakes

The Grim Reaper appears at random in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ work, which feels 'less like a staged play and more like a theatrical experiment.'

Death (Victor Talmadge) was sitting across the aisle from me during the first few minutes of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ morality play, Everybody. It was a reminder that the Grim Reaper can appear at random, “when you least expect it,” dressed up in a pair of normcore Dockers and a hoodie.

Also in attendance was God (Britney Frazier). Sounding a lot like the fiery bellowing deity found in the Old Testament, she declares, “I see that, leaving them alone in their lives and wickedness, they become worse than beasts — than weeds!” God is disappointed in the human race, so she calls Death up to the stage to help her account for “my perfection’s most perfect error!”

Death’s God-given quest is to round up someone who can give an accounting of their lives to help the Almighty make sense of that error. The set-up isn’t unlike a New Yorker cartoon that shows someone standing at the pearly gates wanting to gain admittance to Heaven. But in this scenario, there’s no guarantee that Heaven even exists. Death calls out to the audience and, in response, more actors reveal themselves in different sections of the amphitheater. Everybody is a lottery play, which means that the five other leading roles are determined by chance. The actors all start out playing Somebody — or collectively, Somebodys — until chance fits them with a more specific role.

On opening night, Stacy Ross played the lead role as Everybody. She asks Death if she can bring somebody along with her to the reckoning with God. Reluctantly, Death agrees to grant her a temporary reprieve and his quest begets hers. Everybody must ask the question the Stanley Brothers harmonized to in their lament “Who Will Sing For Me?” They sang, “I wonder who will sing for me when I’m called to cross that silent sea.” First, she seeks out Friendship (Jomar Tagatac) for support. Then Kinship (Sarita Ocón) and Cousin (Lance Gardner) and Stuff (Jenny Nelson). In each successive encounter, Everybody is, in effect, pleading for someone to bear witness to her life as she faces down death.

The five Somebodies – Sarita Ocón (left foreground), Lance Gardner (left rear), Jenny Nelson, Jomar Tagatac (second from right), and Stacy Ross (far right) – getting their roles assigned by a nightly lottery conducted by Victor Talmadge (Death). Photo by Alessandra Mello

If this synopsis sounds solemn, the execution is not. This is a loose-limbed production, one in which the actors run briskly on and around and off the stage. It’s so briskly paced that, until the final scene, Everybody lacks a center of gravity. The fourth wall isn’t broken per se, but the audience spends a great deal of time scanning the theater to locate where the next bit of action will take place. We’re meant to focus on Everybody’s plight, and we do, but at a certain point I just wanted the actors to stand in one place and plant their feet on the ground so we could take in what they were feeling. The actors shouted out plenty of lines across the theater and back, which made it feel less like a staged play and more like a theatrical experiment.

Jacobs-Jenkins adapted Everybody from the 15th century play Everyman. His update includes many lighthearted and absurd moments as Everybody wonders aloud if her life has made her worthy of salvation in the eyes of the Lord. When she asks her Stuff to accompany her, she concludes that, “over the years, you have been such a comfort to me and all the pieces of you are basically all the pieces of my life here and, at the very least, due to capitalism, my labor has been literally translated into the abstract value with which I purchased you.”

The line gets a laugh, but it points out the main weakness of the play. There’s no glass menagerie, no specific image the audience can associate with Everybody. It’s hard to pull for the pieces of her life and her labor. The allegorical figures, including the threat of Death, stand on stage as abstractions. Despite the actors’ best efforts to anchor the play with their hard-working emotions, Everybody only adds up as an intellectual exercise. As such, it may prompt true believers, and maybe some atheists, to check in on their moral consciences before they cross o’er the deep waters of that River Jordan.  

Everybody, through Aug. 5, at California Shakespeare Theater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda, $20-$92; 510-548-9666 or calshakes.org

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