The 15th-century morality play Everyman lay dormant for centuries after its writing, a literary curiosity of value to a few scholars of early English-language drama until a couple of British actors revived it in 1901. Since then, this play about a man who represents all of us facing death has been an object of fascination for its depiction of the transience of all earthly things. It has been reincarnated many times, including a National Theatre production with Chiwetel Ejiofor as a wealthy, coke-sniffing Everyman and a 4-minute Lego movie on YouTube that’s pretty good. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ profoundly frustrating Everybody, a contemporary riff on the Christian play, manages something remarkable: It’s so overwritten, schematic, and predetermined that it makes the original material seem as accessible as an episode of Black Mirror by comparison.
Stage West’s production begins with a cool beat, as an usher (Marcus M. Mauldin) comes out to warn us to turn off our cellphones and give us some historical background about the morality play before segueing directly into the character of God, giving a grandiose and rather pissy speech about how unappreciated He feels by us humans. To correct that, He summons his put-upon assistant Death (Amy Mills) to snatch up Everybody and call them to account for how they lived before they pass on to the next world. “It’s sort of like a presentation,” she says in the play’s contemporary vernacular. “I believe it’s for internal purposes.”
The gimmick here is that a lottery drawing conducted in front of the audience just before the first-half intermission determines which of five actors in the cast portrays Everybody and which ones draw supporting characters such as Friendship, Beauty, Strength, and (my favorite) Evil Shitty Things. To help you keep track of who’s playing what, Stage West has a chart in the lobby where pictures of the actors’ faces are placed underneath which roles they’re playing that day, as well as which parts they played in previous performances. The great advantage of this is that the characters are untethered to the ethnicity of the actors portraying them –– it’s good that Everybody isn’t necessarily a white guy. The downside is that the actors aren’t settled into the roles that they are playing, and at the performance I attended, most of them seemed hyperactive, overheated, straining for effect.
Then again, the greater fault lies with the material than with Stage West’s rendering of it. The framing device with implying that the proceedings we’re watching are actually a dying person’s dream is unnecessarily confusing. A more serious flaw is Jacobs-Jenkins’ dialogue, which is artificial without being sparkling or punchy or funny. The line “Don’t you also want to cut back on screens slash caffeine slash alcohol slash gluten slash carbs slash red meat consumption slash media consumption?” is as wearisome to hear as it is to read, and having other characters call this out as unnatural speech doesn’t help that much. You want Everybody to puncture all this verbiage by reminding people, “I’m dying here!” Instead, we’re given repetitive scenes (a feature of the original play as well) of worldly things saying they can’t accompany Everybody into the afterlife. If you want a surreal experience, how about waiting for a play to come to the point when it keeps asking us what the point is? I felt myself being sucked into a metaphysical vacuum from whence no escape was visible. The play’s climax, involving an appearance by Love (Ryan Michael Friedman) isn’t nearly payoff enough.
Stage West had great success staging Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon last year, which was another contemporary re-imagining of an outdated stage work. The young playwright has risen to great success quickly and for good reason, but our local troupe seems to have jumped the gun and picked a play of his that doesn’t show any further maturity. You hope that such a talented writer has better luck with his next subject and that Stage West is on it when he does.
Thru Jan 27. Stage West, 821 W Vickery Dr, FW. $17-35. 817-784-9378.