Death is the last experience, and perhaps the last subject you’d consider entertaining––but playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins implies it might be a good idea if you didn’t postpone thinking about it. That’s the premise of “Everybody,” his 2017 updating of the early 16th century morality play “Everyman,” in which Death comes for a Christian who’s not quite prepared (running until Oct. 12). In Ithaca College’s Clark Theatre, the audience surrounds the stage on three sides, and even more intimately, some members of the 9-person ensemble are seated among them. Clearly, there’s no escaping that we are also Everybody. Jacobs-Jenkins likes provocatively mixing up theatrical modes and philosophical inquiry, as in his plays “An Octoroon” and “Appropriate” –– here the naturalistic dialogue bangs up against symbolic context.
Under Cynthia Henderson’s direction, the play unfolds in a black space, with an usher (Kwezt (Kellik) Dawson) advising us at length to silence our phones and unwrap our candies. Soon enough we realize they are an actor trying to inform and prepare us: “Talking about Death, as we all know, is difficult.” Then in various forms God manifests, angry and upset in his/her own perfection that the prime creation has gone awry. God wants an official accounting –– “I require data!” –– and sends Death to bring back Everybody.
Unsuccessful at weaseling out of this final reckoning (“sort of like a presentation”), Everybody persuades Death to let them bring along someone for company. But one by one, almost everyone demurs –– friendship, kinship, worldly goods (“stuff”) –– their rejections as comical as they are disturbing.
The God section is one that the young actors don’t handle well; voices are un-nuanced and bombastic, which becomes tedious rather than dramatic. Once the focus shifts to the various Everybodys, normal folks, reacting to Death’s message, in colloquial language, they’re far more engaging. One by one they respond with incredulity and resistance –– most not even realizing there still is a God. It’s quite funny; in fact the entire script is filled with humor, though these actors only seem to convey half of it.
In one delightful scene, Everybody enthusiastically embraces a friend he hasn’t seen in ages, rattling off predictable patter: “Remember that time we sort of hooked up? That was weird, right? But it’s good we got over it, right? Right? … Did you hear that we are in a Golden Age of Television? But don’t you also want to cut back on screens slash caffeine slash alcohol slash gluten slash carbs slash red meat consumption slash media consumption, because, like, aren’t you so tired of the media? Aren’t you so tired of social media?”
Eventually the BFF, who’s promised to go to hell and back for Everybody, decides that can’t be taken quite so literally. Friendship runs off hollering to others, “You guys, I’m so upset! My friend is dying! But I’ve made art about it! Please, come look!”
Reflexive and meta-theatrical, Jacobs-Jenkins’s work is constantly doubling back on itself, cross-examining its own unfolding. “Everybody” includes scenes of the key character thinking they’re dreaming, telling the dream to friends, who argue about whether the person is racist. This interspersed series of conversations, combined with the main narrative, offers us a miscellany of moments and devices and metaphors, some of which fascinate, some founder. A compelling play, if an imperfect one.
Early on, actors are supposedly assigned their parts at random, by lottery, again implying that we could all be in Everybody’s shoes. The playwright also wanted actors of varying genders, ages, and ethnicities; the effect here of having an all college-age cast does change the impact of the play. The ensemble includes Jessica Brock, Will DeVary, Christian Henry, Avery Lynch, Christina Ruivivar, Justin Shondeck, Jordan Sledd, and Lucia Vecchio. They gamely traverse the walkways of Rico Froehlich’s stark set: in the dark void (lit by Steve TenEyck), parallel paths that rise and fall like wooden ribbons, suggesting alternate life choices and journeys. They’re dressed (by costumer Niazayre Bates) as ordinary young people, far less forgettably as gaudy symbols (golden “Stuff” being the most outrageous).
When Everybody has run out of options, abandoned by body, mind, and even senses, Love steps in. Everyman was saved by his Good Deeds, but Jacobs-Jenkins posits instead a perverse and inexplicable Love, rather creepily played, who demands humiliation and total surrender before accompanying Everybody into the smoky pit.
Lest you be too weirded out, though, Death, Time, and Understanding have a comical confab at play’s end. And the endearing Usher’s back to sum up: “Why is it these plays about death always only ever wind up trying to tell us about life?”