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BWW Review: EVERYBODY at Shakespeare Theatre Company

BWW Review: EVERYBODY at Shakespeare Theatre Company
The cast of Everybody, by DJ Corey

Shakespeare Theatre Company's season opener, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' Everybody, is both familiar and unique. It's an update of a 15th-century morality play, Everyman, which in turn is based on an older Dutch play, Elckerlijc, which itself is based on an even older Buddhist fable. That is to say, Everybody, in many ways, is an old and universal story. As such, it's not surprising that the play explores themes of life, death, the afterlife, and the purposes of human experiences - these are questions we have long grappled with, and continue to do so. But Everybody also provides a fresh perspective and a new approach.

The show embraces its off-beat intentions by essentially smashing the fourth wall. The opening of the show is a very funny usher (Yonatan Gebeyehu) whose warnings about cell phones, snack packaging, and other disturbances should certainly be heeded - especially when he is revealed to be not only a member of the cast, but God. He then summons Death (Nancy Robinette) and charges her with gathering everybody, and bringing them to him to account for themselves and their lives. Death, frustrated by her limited directive to "figure it out," turns to the audience. Once the rest of the cast, scattered throughout the theater, is assembled on stage and begins to understand the circumstances, our usher returns with Everybody's main twist: the five "Somebodies" on stage will be assigned their roles in a live lottery.

This means that each performance has the potential to be uniquely different: there are 120 possible combinations, and the five actors - Alina Collins Maldonado, Avi Roque, Kelli Simpkins, Ayana Workman, and Elan Zafir - have not only learned each of the roles, but how to interact with their castmates in each corresponding role as well. It's a tremendous lift for an actor, and a bold, ambitious decision by director Will Davis. And yet, it also encapsulates the themes of the show - the experiences that are at once unique and universal, the randomness of life and death, and the sense that any one of us could be these characters. For the production reviewed here, the titular Everybody was played by Avi Roque; Alina Collins Maldonado played Kinship/Strength/All the Shitty Evil Things, Kelli Simpkins portrayed Stuff/Senses, Ayana Workman took on Cousin/Mind, and Elan Zafir embodied Friendship/Beauty.

BWW Review: EVERYBODY at Shakespeare Theatre Company

Once roles are distributed, we return to Everybody's journey, following God's request and Death's revelation that Everybody is dying, and must prepare for an accounting before God. Lest this seem too religious, the show is quick to lighten the mood while also digging into the broader themes: each time God is mentioned, actors question whether God is real, and what "real" even means. This philosophical take might be a rabbithole for some, but the questions raised are genuine, and help add to the overall sense of Everybody's struggle as they consider how to examine and present their life's accounting. Death has permitted Everybody to bring one friend, if possible, so Everybody also reviews their options and attempts to persuade a companion to join them on their journey.

Roque, as Everybody, was a great guide for the audience - their confusion and path to their fate is balanced with their confidence when challenged about points they have settled. Roque is charismatic, and vacillates between relief when they think they have succeeded in convincing their companions and lashing out when denied. Their asides and deep ponderings are both enlightening and amusing, and Roque's whole self is thrown into each emotional movement. Their first appeal is to Zafir's Friendship, whose frenetic energy is both comical and familiar; although Friendship is an abstract idea, Zafir clearly has mastered its personification. The combination of weirdly specific and equally generalized references makes it easy to imagine a reference to any friend one can picture, and Zafir's playfulness creates a bright moment before Everybody's request leads to Friendship's rejection. An increasingly agitated Everybody then turns to Kinship and Cousins for assistance, hoping they will accompany them where Friendship would not. Despite the clear familial humor and affection Maldonado's Kinship and Workman's Cousin show for Everybody, neither agrees to the journey, though, in true form they do offer advice; Maldonado is sweet and supportive, while Workman instead is hilarious and direct. Desperate, Everybody engages with Simpkins' Stuff, hoping for some company on the long, unknown journey ahead. Simpkins is delightful as Stuff, awkwardly explaining Everybody's misconceptions of ownership while making it clear that it's true: you can't take it with you. But just as Everybody is distraught, hope arrives in the form of Ahmad Kamal's Love, though it's much tougher and blunter than Everybody anticipates.

I hesitate to say too much about the alternative roles played by each actor as well as the final castmate, the charming Clare Carys O'Connell, because I don't want to give away the entire plot, but I will note that Ms. O'Connell's STC premier has shown that this young actress can hold her own against her more seasoned castmates, and her delivery of some of the more abstract concepts is spot-on and hilarious.

BWW Review: EVERYBODY at Shakespeare Theatre Company

Aiding this strong cast is a solid production team. Davis' directing is tight and focused, keeping the show's many elements and tangents on track. Jacobs-Jenkins' script is packed with layered meanings and smart observations about life and the world we inhabit; it's the kind of script you want to sit and read thoroughly afterward, just to make sure you fully appreciate each detail. Arnulfo Maldonado's simple set is fitting for the production's themes, and the minimalist approach allows the audience to fill in with their own interpretations of these epistemic mysteries. The balloons (which are also referenced in the Sylvia Plath poem included in the program) add a touch of whimsy and, ironically, grounding for the characters. Barbara Samuels' lighting design perfectly sets the show's atmosphere, particularly for Everybody's asides, though occasionally the return to full bright white after softer tones was a bit jarring. Sound Designer and Composer Brendan Aanes lightens the load for the actors by providing pre-recorded musings for some of the longer asides, though the tonal choice was occasionally a bit difficult to listen to for the full duration. That said, the overall effects were quite good, as it set apart the internal monologues from Everybody's main interactions. Melissa Ng's costumes were great physical portrayals of the abstractions, particularly those featured in the show's danse macabre, in which the costumes nodded at the artistic origins while emphasizing the theme of death coming for all.

Even the program plays a role in this production, complete with additional background and insights as well as post-show recommendations. It's a rare treat to see such a comprehensive production.

Everybody may not be for, well, everybody - it's a quirky play that tackles humanity, life, death, and our own fragile existence head-on. But those who are brave enough to face these uncomfortable truths are rewarded with a fast-talking, quick-witted, deep-thinking performance.

Shakespeare Theatre Company's Everybody is playing at the Lansburgh Theatre through November 17th. Run time is approximately 90 minutes with no intermission. More information about performances, accessibility, can be found on the Shakespeare Theatre Company website.

Photo Credit: DJ Corey


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