Illuminating life by making light of death
Death is in the air this fall at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Everybody. In fact, Death is even in the theater.
But Death, played by Nancy Robinette, is a far cry from the creepy, cloaked Grim Reaper who usually comes to mind. Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Death is amicable, even funny.
Like a stand-up comedian, Death heckles the cast’s five other members (planted in the audience) while moving around with a confident strut. She summons them on stage and relays a message from none other than God.
These five Somebodies, as they’re referred to in the play, must prepare a presentation about their lives and how they lived them. Eventually, the Somebodies realize that this impending meeting with God is a sign that one of them is to die.
Such is the launch pad for Everybody, a 2018 Pulitzer Prize finalist.
If the plot seems cliché, the Usher reminds us, it’s because Everybody is based on a 15th-century morality play, Everyman. While the adaptation features a modern spin with timely jokes, the overarching themes are the same.
At the same time, the play’s tongue-in-cheek recognition of its lineage and downright sass make it a gleeful ride.
Jacobs-Jenkins, a MacArthur Fellow and D.C. native, doesn’t shy away from life’s big and enduring questions. He uses Everybody to address what it’s like to die, whether God exists, and what can and cannot come with us to the grave. Much like real life, in Everybody, you never know what’s on the horizon.
Chance happens to all
The five Somebodies that Death calls upon are clueless about the journey ahead of them and, to a certain degree, so are the actors portraying them. The five actors receive their assignments on stage during each performance, their characters for the evening dictated by lottery.
This casting gimmick is meant to evoke the randomness of death, as the character of the Usher wryly explains. Beyond this, and perhaps the resulting novelty of each night’s performance, the device serves no larger purpose.
Its effect on the cast members, though, is significant. The five Somebodies must be prepared for any role, and the one selected to play Everybody will face death.
Death’s one concession — that Everybody can bring one companion along, should anyone consent — leads Everybody to approach those they devoted themself to in life. But all of the candidates (Friendship, Cousin, Kinship and Stuff) disappoint. Each refuses to accompany Everybody into death.
While they grapple with these betrayals, Everybody blames typical targets like the media and society. They grow terrified as their singularity dawns on them, though their name brings some consolation about the universality of this fate.
When it comes to sass, on opening night, most of it was supplied by Yonatan Gebeyehu in his roles as Usher, God, and Understanding. But Kelli Simpkins and Elan Zafir, playing Stuff and Friendship, earn their share of laughs, too.
In addition, the set was a gem of the production, despite being minimalist. Scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado crafted a beautiful, glowing backdrop through soft white lighting. Balloons abounded, a nod to life’s fragility.
Life’s mystery and absurdity
As Understanding reminds us, humans have come no closer to ascertaining what happens to us upon dying, and Everybody takes this persisting mystery for both tragedy and comedy.
In the near-final scene, for instance, while the titular character dances with Death, the rest of the cast twist and turn to ominous electronic music, holding balloon-animal skeletons and donning velvet robes. Repeatedly, tension expands into amusing absurdity in such a manner.
Nonsense alongside earnestness is the enchanting promise of Everybody. It might not be the new play for the ages, but it’s enough to inspire humility about just how little everybody knows — about not only death but life.
Everybody will run until Nov. 17 at the Lansburgh Theatre, located at 450 Seventh St. NW, Washington, D.C.
Tickets cost $44 to $120 and are available for purchase online at ShakespeareTheatre.org or by calling the box office at (202) 547-1122. Adults over 60 receive a 10% discount on all tickets and a 50% discount on Wednesday matinees.