Don’t let anyone tell you that death rates have gone up or down. The rates are still what they’ve always been – one per person. But if Medieval chroniclers, whether through art or literature, seemed a little obsessed with death, it’s because they saw so much of it - early, ugly, and often violent. Portrayals of black robed skeletons accosting travelers along the road were widely understood. Death is near and waiting.
“Everyman,” the 15th century morality play that could easily travel from village to village, needed no explanation. Death accosts the traveler called “Everyman” and tells him he must come to a reckoning with God. Today. Now. Everyman is frightened, tries to bargain, then pleads, then asks what in today’s parlance would be, “Can I bring a date?” “Sure,” Death replies, with a knowing smile. “If you can find someone willing to go with you.”
This is too good to be forgotten, and playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has taken the story, applied his own special vision, and produced magic.
Yonatan Gebeyehu, entering the audience with the authority of a confident, playful usher, gives us the usual warnings about cell phones and other nuisances and then proceeds to the stage where he becomes God. God observes no time constraints and summons Death to summon Everybody to give an accounting of their lives.
Observing the motif of death as random lottery, Jacobs-Jenkins has carried the idea right up to the brink of the play. Five actors come out on stage to draw a ball from the lottery “spinner.” The role inside the ball is the one they will play that night. “Somebody” will become “Everybody.”
Director Will Davis has a light, firm grip on the humor, the energy, and the timing. We enter a surrealistic world, a white on white shallow stage-length box (set designer Arnulfo Maldonado) interrupted by Barbara Samuels’ gentle lighting. This box is the world, and in this world Everybody (played on my night by Avi Roque) searches for a companion to take to Death. Death, played by Nancy Robinette with her signature pragmatism and dry humor, is in no great hurry, and gives Everybody some time to find out the truth: In spite of all the promises of Friendship, Kinship, and Riches (known here as your “Stuff”) the way is very lonely.
Elan Zafir is the back-slapping Friendship who will buy you a beer and swears he has your back and is always good to have around – when things are good. But go to Death? He’s history. Alina Maldonado and Ayana Workman are Kinship. You don’t deny your blood – right? Us against them, together forever – until it really gets real – and they, too, are smoke.
Booming acoustics of ‘thinking out loud’, in which Everybody ponders over who would be faithful, drive the story forward and, after the first two denials, remembers Stuff. We love our Stuff! We collect it and spend way too much money on it – surely it will go with us when we die! Well, no. Kelli Simpkins is a marvelous Stuff. She makes it clear that not only will she not go with Everybody, she has never promised loyalty as the others have and when Everybody is dead, she’ll just move on to someone else.
One of the lovely visuals in this strange, stopped landscape is the five plump white balloons, which, containing breath, are like transient souls that pass through time. Friendship even gives Everybody a large, fat gold balloon as a reward for – something – before skittering off to parts unknown.
An imposing looking audience member gets up and puts on his jacket to leave. Is it real? But Everybody calls out to him only to learn that this being (Ahmad Kamal) is Love, and he’s tired of watching something that has nothing to do with him. A romp through the audience ensues but ends when Everybody promises to do anything if Love will go. Anything? The sequence that follows is strange, riveting and softly tragic. Nevertheless, Love keeps his word.
In a nod to the sad inevitability of aging, four strikingly costumed beings march onto the stage, only to peel off one by one with little fanfare and no apology. They are Beauty, Strength, Mind, and Senses. But Love remains faithfully nearby.
The bower of white balloons that smother the stage is strangely moving, as Everybody and Love go to the inevitable rendezvous – and one white balloon drifts upward.
A small girl (Clare O’Connell) is plucked from the audience and reveals herself as Time. She and Death are quite chummy together, and a character introducing himself as Understanding (Yonatan Geveyehu) is pleased to make her acquaintance.
This is allegory in its purest and most effective sense. What the unwashed and unlettered peasants of medieval Europe understood has been polished, given an upgrade of depth, humor, and dimension and passed down to us. There are questions of philosophy, symbols, and surprises that may not have existed in its original form, but the answer is the same. Everybody works, plays, waits, fears – and loves – and eventually gets called by Death. We are Everybody.
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.
WANT TO GO?
Where: Shakespeare Theatre Co., Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW, Washington, D.C.
Call: (202) 547-1122 or visit shakespearetheatre.org.
Playing through Nov. 17