Can you imagine a medieval morality play adapted as a 21st century performance? Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has, and I saw his work, Everybody, at the Signature Theatre this afternoon. It was very cleverly done, and it would be useful for our current president and vice-president to see it as well, though that’s not likely. It’s only playing through March 19.
It’s based loosely on the 15th century English play Everyman, which may have been based on an earlier Dutch play, we’re informed by the usher, who shortly is possessed by God, who is rather angry at what his creation humans are doing to the rest of his creation on Earth. God orders Death to bring Everybody to Him to give an account of themselves.
Death is an elderly white woman (God was, temporarily at least, an African-American woman), who picks several people out of the audience – at first we’re not sure whether they are ordinary spectators or plants, real actors. They are needless to say not very happy to be summoned by Death, and they are not even sure it’s happening. Maybe it’s a dream. Death concedes that Everybody can bring someone with them, but can’t tell them how to give that account of themselves.
One actor (and a different one at each performance, chosen by lot, as so much happens to us all by chance) takes on the role of Everybody and tries, successively, to get Friendship, Kinship, and even his Stuff to die with him, but each one demurs. Friendship’s speech is a perfect amalgam of all the generic ways we think friendship exists (“Remember that time...?” “We had the best night...” “You know that joke...” without any specifics). Everybody’s encounter with his Stuff hit particularly close for me, as Everybody described all the ways that I use my stuff to remember my life and reveal its meaning to me.
Love is the only character who finally agrees to go with Everybody, not a Love that a Hallmark card would recognize, forcing Everybody to humiliate himself. But once Everybody can surrender to this Love, the strobe lights and disco music come on, and two larger than life skeletons come out to dance, a perfect 21st century recreation of medieval visions of death.
This play deserves more than its brief run, and there’s so much more that could be said about it. It made me think not only about everyone’s inevitable death, but about my husband’s so recent one. I found myself wishing I could tell his dead self about the play and ask whether he identified with any of Everybody’s thoughts or feelings--> as he was about to die. An eerie, thoughtful experience.