Thursday, 23 February 2017

EVERYBODY by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins at the Signature Theatre

     I have admired everything I have seen for far by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, so I really looked forward to EVERYBODY, his take on the quasi-morality play EVERYMAN. EVERYBODY was, alas, a disappointment.
     EVERYMAN itself if a strange hybrid. In my day it was taught as the best example of a medieval morality play but it isn't typical of the genre and was probably written as a closet drama, to be read, not to be produced. Popular English morality plays of the 14th century were far more ribald and crass (the devil, the most popular character, often farted fireworks). EVERYMAN (perhaps based on a Dutch play), is far more austere with far fewer theatrics. It asks a question often asked by medieval and early modern drama--of what value is an individual's life? What matters at the moment of death? What mattered to a Christian audience of the period and to the author of EVERYMAN was faith and, in EVERYMAN, Good Deeds (not an idea that Martin Luther would approve of. God in EVERYMAN is ultimately interested in teaching the title character that only one's good works accompany one to the grave. Only one's good deeds redeem one's life. What do you have left of EVERYMAN if you take away the religion that is the heart and soul of the play? In Jacobs-Jenkins version of EVERYMAN, to quote the Beatles, "All you need is love." Now a good Christian would agree that love, caritas, is what we should feel toward every living thing including our enemies. But what does love mean in EVERYBODY? Love for whom, for what? Jacobs-Jenkins never explores this, making EVERYBODY his least intellectually rigorous or coherent play. In fact, I found it to be quite a despairing play. His gender neutral Everybody finds that all the things he valued in life are worth nothing at the moment of death.  He's left with love, played by a cute sweet guy. Instead of Good Deeds, he's left with "All the shitty things he ever did." As a person of faith, I found the play amusing but sad and empty. Be nice to everybody" is a sad dilution of the message of EVERYMAN or the message of love espoused by many faiths.
     As usual with Jenkins, the play is imbued with a great sense of theatre. There's a lottery in which one of the actors is randomly chosen to play Everybody (Louis Cancelmi at my performance). There's a light show and a dance of death performed by two skeletons. There's a lot of contemporary humor. There are also tiresome moments--much sitting in the dark while we hear the recorded voices of a man and a woman arguing over whether one or the other is racist. I felt that many scenes were a minute or two too long.
     Until the final moments, much of the production takes place in the auditorium rather than on the stage. Lila Neugebauer has used the space effectively but I felt that the actors were left to their own devices. The rhythm overall was a bit slack. Perhaps if the lottery had had a different result and I had seen Everybody played by a more interesting actor, I would have felt more dramatic tension. Cancelmi sleepwalked through the performance rather than portraying a man terrified of death and the loss of all he valued. This should be a frightening play. It wasn't.

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