“Everybody,” currently playing the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., is an irreverent but witty comedy about death and its exploration about how a soul progresses through life, death and the afterlife. The performance, as a whole, is entertaining from beginning to end.
Written by Obie Award winner and MacArthur “Genius” grant recipient Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, the play is based on the medieval morality play, “Everyman,” an allegorical drama. Written to teach Christians how to live their lives to save their souls, “Everyman” used abstract qualities like virtues and vices as characters battling for the soul of one person on a quest for salvation.
Plays of this sort also suggest that no matter how great or small a person, he or she would one day have to confront death that could come for us at any time. Death was humanity’s shared destiny.
In the program notes, Director Will Davis sets up “Everybody” by asking, “What does all of this, life, possibly mean? What do we do if it means nothing? And if it means nothing, how can I prepare myself for my own death? How do I conceive of where my loved ones go—is ‘go’ even the right verb?”
Jacobs-Jenkins explained that for this production he wanted people to leave the theater looking at life differently, but “at the most elemental level to leave with the bravery to try to actually connect, to try to understand, to see each other in each other.”
To achieve this, he cleverly updates the play’s themes with an arresting and new approach. Of the nine-member cast, five actors pick from a live lottery onstage each night to play various roles. This means that each performance can be uniquely different, with up to 120 variations. The randomness of the selection process, and that fact that five actors play a variety of roles, also speaks to the randomness of life and death and to Jacobs-Jenkins’ vision of humanity being one.
On opening night, Avi Roque played Everybody, the protagonist, who has to come with grips that death is inescapable. The roles of the Somebodies, who play a variety of archetypes, including Friendship/Beauty; Kinship/Strength/All the Shitty, Evil Things; Stuff/Senses; Cousin/Mind, were delightfully played by Kelli Simpkins, Ayana Workman, Alina Collins Maldonado and Elan Zafir.
The remaining stellar cast members play the same roles each night, and although not pressured to remember the lines for five characters, are, nonetheless, a joy to watch. These include county native Yonatan Gebeyehu as the Usher/God/Understanding; Nancy Robinette as Death; Clare Carys O’Connell as Girl/Time; and Ahmad Kamal as Love.
“Everybody” is full of fun and surprises, and in Davis’ capable hands, this quirky production is also deeply layered and thought-provoking. The play kicks off with Gebeyehu as a theater usher hilariously warning audience members to silence their cellphones and pointing out theater exits.
We later see him as a self-absorbed God, summoning Death to gather everybody to account for their life’s actions.
When Everybody learns that they are dying, they struggle with how to prepare their life’s accomplishments. They ask Death if they can bring someone along to help. They select a best friend and a cousin, but neither wants to go along when they learn that they won’t be allowed to return.
Along the way, Everybody also realizes how they must use their five senses to get through the process and that they have to discard all of their stuff, including material wealth. They have to let go of control and finally surrender.
In the end, Everybody learns that no one knows how much time we have remaining in this human birth. Death is just a step behind each of us, and this precious birth should not be squandered away in short-lived pleasures.
The only things that one can take along are all the shitty, evil things one has done, along with love. Everybody prods us to deeply inquire into our true essence, which is love, and understand the real source of peace and happiness.
“Everybody” ushers in a new era at Shakespeare Theatre with Simon Godwin as its new artistic director who noted that the shift from “everyman” to “everybody” is one that he would like to see in the world.
A talented production team deserves mention for their contributions, including Arnulfo Maldonado, scenic design; Melissa Ng, costume design; Barbara Samuels, lighting design; and Brendan Aanes, sound design.
The play runs through Nov. 17. For tickets, visit shakespearetheatre.org.