In Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Everybody, a modern adaptation of the fifteenth century morality play Everyman, five of the actors are assigned roles using a lottery system, and so these five actors have been tasked with memorizing all of the parts they might play in this production. But four of the performers play the same roles at every performance: Jocelyn Bioh plays God, Marylouise Burke plays Death, Chris Perfetti plays Love, and the young Lilyana Tiare Cornell plays Time.
Bioh begins Everybody in the guise of an usher at the Signature Theatre, the venue that is housing this production. She tells us to turn off our cell phones and unwrap any candy just as any theater usher might do, but she does it in a way that segues very believably into the outsized wrath of an irritated God. The house lights are up for this section of Everybody and they stay up as Burke’s slightly dithering Death is introduced. Five actors were plucked out of the audience and then they received their assignments via the lottery system, just as randomly as we receive our own roles in life.
Different actors bring with them very different resonances, of course. It worked out that David Patrick Kelly would be playing the lead role, a dying man who is desperately trying to find someone to accompany him to whatever lies beyond our consciousness. Kelly is an older guy with white hair and a white beard, and at one point during this performance he was ordered by Perfetti’s Love to humiliate himself, which meant he had to strip down to his underwear and run around the theater and shout degrading things. Kelly did this in an extremely energetic and spry fashion, but his white hair and white beard gave a special power to this scene. (If one of the younger actors had been playing his role, it would not have had such impact.) Similarly, Louis Cancelmi was tasked with playing the idea of material possessions, and he did this with an absent-minded sort of seductiveness that was ideal for the part as written.
Everybody is an experiment, and what each individual audience sees will likely be a singular event. Jacobs-Jenkins had a success downtown with his play An Octoroon, an adaptation of a nineteenth century melodrama that simultaneously re-invigorated and critiqued old stereotypes. The restless intelligence of this playwright performs a similar job on Everyman, which features some fairly stern moralizing that Jacobs-Jenkins cuts with more modern fluidity of thought.
Yet Jacobs-Jenkins has a way of infusing his writing with a kind of urgency that has no time for doubt, contradiction, or exposition. He goes right to the points he needs to make and dives in as deeply as possible and then moves swiftly on to the next point and goes as deeply as possible with that one, too. His impatience is very exciting, and his authorial voice is tough. A modern version of Everyman might easily succumb to sentimentality in the hands of a more day-dreamy playwright, but Jacobs-Jenkins treats the eternal themes here with such bracing “let’s get this done” verve that you would probably want him as your lawyer if called upon to defend your own life after death.
Everybody is showing at the Signature Theatre through March 19.
Photos by Monique Carboni