What do you get when you combine the classic “Who’s on First?” comedy skit with the fifteenth-century morality play Everyman? The answer is Everybody, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ 2017 adaptation of Everyman, which made its way onto the stage of the UVA Department of Drama last weekend under the direction of Drama Professor Dave Dalton. With a cast of only ten actors playing characters such as Love, Time, and Stuff, Everybody is in every way an unconventional theatrical experience.
Like its source material, Everybody seeks to unravel the meaning of life by way of the imminence of death. The story follows Everybody, an individual who has been chosen by Death to go on a journey, and their desperate attempts to bring something from life along with them. They reach out to the sources of their fondest memories – friendship, family, and material goods – for comfort, but one by one they abandon Everybody.
The production combines both classical and modern artistic aspects of theatre, creating an illusion of timelessness. The play is staged “in the round” (with the audience on three sides), as in classical Greek or Roman drama, but also features a campy version of a danse macabre (a classic medieval allegory for death), complete with colorful lights and skeleton costumes. The stage is bare, with the floor pattern resembling twisting gears, and characters routinely lip-sync other characters’ recorded monologues, creating a dissonance between appearances and sound.
The most unique aspect of the performance is the casting. There are five roles called “Somebody.” Every night, a different “Somebody” actor is chosen at random to play Everybody, while the other four take on the roles of Friendship, Kinship, Cousin, and Stuff. This distinctive casting decision adds to the element of universality present throughout the play: Everybody could be played by anybody. Everybody is anybody, showing each member of the audience their frailties, as all of them will encounter Death themselves one day.
At the opening of the show, all of the Somebodys sit in the audience in everyday clothes, blending in seamlessly, until Death chooses them, seemingly at random, to take the stage. When Death pointed at the Somebody sitting directly in front of me, for a jarring moment I thought he was demanding that I join him onstage. Only a few minutes later, that night’s roles for the Somebodys are chosen onstage by way of a golden bingo machine, the archetype of randomness, and each of them steps offstage to don the character they have been assigned. However, Everybody is intensely self-aware as a work of theatre; the Usher, who serves as a narrator with a surprising twist, admits to the audience that they have no reason to believe the selections are truly random. “Either you do or you don’t! And that’s on you,” the Usher says, curating a little nod-and-wink moment for the audience.
I saw Everybody on Saturday, November 4th, with fourth-year College student Sean Miller playing the titular role. He demonstrates unique mastery of an indisputably complex role, bringing bewilderment and desperation to a “common man” archetype while remaining both likable and pitiable. His voice acting in particular shines in the voiceover interludes, making it easy for the audience to picture his every expression.
The other four Somebodys are played by Darnell Glover, Lilla Woodard, Katia Ramirez, and Mary Hall, who all come together to present a varied but cohesive group of earthly pleasures that abandon Everybody as Death approaches. Friendship, Kinship, Cousin, and Stuff are all comedic roles with a tragic bent, an admittedly difficult balance to strike. However, the Somebodys nailed it with a casual nonchalance, along with the challenge of playing personifications rather than actual persons.
Ramirez, a second-year College student, described the unique challenges of learning five different roles by heart. Although she asserted that it was difficult to memorize what amounts to more than half of the play, the primary emotion she experienced was excitement.
“It’s really very fun to have the opportunity to play a different part each night,” she said with a smile. “Because the cast is different at every performance, the dynamics between actors change, so the material always stays very fresh.” Everybody is a play like no other in that no two performances are the same, since different combinations of actors create different onstage dynamics. “It’s like you get a new scene every night, even with the same script,” Ramirez confirmed.
Thanks to its rather ambiguous ending, the play is quite difficult to unravel. I wasn’t quite sure if the play is intended to be nihilistic or hopeful, but Ramirez provided me with a more nuanced take. She believes that the play is about gratitude for the human experience and all the joys, suffering, and loss that come with it. It’s a play about love; not the things you love, but the very act of loving. “Everybody has to learn to love themself because, in the end, your love and your good actions are the only thing you can keep with you,” she offers.
Everybody will run through November 11th at the Ruth Caplin Theater. I strongly encourage everyone to purchase a ticket through the UVA Arts Box Office for an entertaining and thought-provoking evening. Or evenings, because the show will never be the same twice.