The Alliance Theatre is presenting Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Everybody,” a jazzed-up version of the 15th Century morality play “Everyman,” running through Oct. 2. The play is co-directed by Susan Booth, the Alliance’s departed artistic director, and Tinashe Kajese-Bolden.
“Everybody” is the final production for Booth, who led the Alliance for 21 years, shepherding the theater company to a Tony Award and directing many fine plays (“August: Osage County” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” are the first that come to mind). Booth is taking over as artistic director at Chicago’s famed Goodman Theare, and our loss is definitely their gain.
As the Bard said, the play’s the thing; and we now turn to “Everybody,” which was originally written in Middle English (translated to “Everyman”) and has no record of being performed for 500 years — until 1901. That fact alone would certainly seem to give one pause before attempting a production.
However, it has not stopped playwright Jacobs-Jenkins from attempting “a modern riff,” to use his phrase. And so he did, creating an Off-Broadway production called “Everybody,” which ran briefly in 2017. It was even a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize. I liked his play “Appropriate,” staged by Actor’s Express a few years ago.
The cheery theme of “Everyman” and “Everybody” was expressed perfectly by Olympia Dukakis’ character in the film “Moonstruck,” in a line spoken to her husband Cosmo: “I just want you to know no matter what you do, you’re gonna die, just like everybody else.”
The central problem in the morality play is the salvation of human beings, and their struggle to avoid sin and damnation and achieve freedom and salvation in the next world. It’s sort of a dramatized sermon designed to teach a moral lesson. And the use of allegory (giving abstract ideas or values a physical representation) was a common device. So each character not only stands for a certain quality; he or she is that quality.
“Everyman’s” moral is explicitly Catholic, which was the dominant sect of European Christianity during the 15th Century. In the program notes, Jacobs-Jenkins said he “took any mention of repentance and confession out of the script” to make “Everyman” modern. I disagree with this claim: It’s all there, in the subtext, and you needn’t be a rocket scientist to discern it.
As happens so often with mediocre scripts, we depend on the talent and the magnetism of the actors to show us a good time; and that is the case with “Everybody.” We have several of Atlanta’s best actors to cheer us up and show us how to live joyfully while we’re alive. That is their task, at any rate.
Oh—the biggest “riff” of the evening is that each night there is an onstage lottery to decide who among the “Somebodys” will play “Everybody.” So several members of the cast must have the entire play memorized. The night I saw the show a radiant, resourceful Courtney Patterson played Everybody.
A few actors are assigned fixed roles: “Death,” Andrew Benator; “Love,” Shakirah Demesier; “Girl/Time,” Skylar Ebron; and “Usher/God/Understanding,” Diedrie Henry. The other Somebodies (who could become Everybody by the luck of the draw!) include Chris Kayser, Bethany Anne Lind, Joseph J. Pendergrast, Brandon Burditt, and the aforementioned Patterson.
There are plenty of inventive hijinks provided by Lex Liang, scenic and costume designer; Thom Weaver, lighting designer; and Milton Cordero, production design. And audience members are given neon collars to wear (if they wish); I’m not sure what symbolism is intended here—oh yes, have fun while you’re alive. And have fun seeing this play; I’m sure it’s possible.
For tickets and information, visit alliancetheatre.org.