by Lynn on June 27, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Shaw Festival until Oct. 8, 2022.

Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Directed by László Bérczes

Movement director, Alexis Milligan

Set by Balázs Cziegler

Costumes designed by Sim Suzer

Lighting by Kevin Lamotte

Music direction, original music and sound design by Claudio Vena

Cast: Andrew Broderick

Sharry Flett

Patrick Galligan

Deborah Hay

Julie Lumsden

Michael Man

Alana Randall

Kiera Sangster

Travis Seetoo

Donna Soares

Terrific Play. Hard-working cast, odd production, set that needs to chop down a tree, beautiful though it is.

The Story. That secretive playwright, Anonymous, wrote Everyman, a medieval morality play, in the 15th century. It was a play about Death and living one’s life well and wisely. Then in 2018 the wonderful American playwright, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins adapted the play to a modern sensibility and called it Everybody. 

Here is the description of the play as per the back flap of the text of Everybody: “This modern riff on the fifteenth century morality play Everyman follows “Everybody” as they journey through life’s greatest mystery—the meaning of life.”

Actually, it’s a little murkier than that. “Everybody” has to prepare for a voyage of no return—to death—and in the process of course, it’s hoped learns the meaning of life and how to live it well.

But before “Everybody” takes that one-way death trip, “Everybody” has to prepare a presentation for God about what they have learned. And the play is funny too!

The Production. (NOTE: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has added a bit of spice to the proceedings.  The part of “Everybody” is chosen from a group of six actors by lottery. Six actors are ‘slotted’ to play “Everybody” which means all six have to memorize 14 different parts that indicates what part they will play for that performance: Love, Evil, Understanding etc. So one person is picked at “Everybody” and the other five take on other parts, such as Love, Evil, Understanding, etc. )

Set designer, Balázs Cziegler, has covered the whole surface of the playing area with artificial grass that also goes up the stairs to each section of the theatre. The audience sits on all four sides of the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre. In the central playing area there are a few mounds of grass on a flat mat of grass. There are several boulders around the space on which characters will sit and in the middle of the playing area is the most beautiful, willowy tree that looks like the outline of a curvy woman, with branches that go up and out with dark reddish leaves on the ends. I smile. This is an equal opportunity obstructing tree. At every second of this sometimes funny, generally maddening production, is that bloody tree, guaranteed to obstruct the view of every single person in that theatre. This tree is not symbolic of the Tree of Knowledge—much too late in history for that. Nope this tree was vital for hanging a necklace on one of its branches which one character would remove, ONCE, in the whole production. For the rest of the production, the tree just got in the way of entrances, exits and speeches by characters. Exhale.   

As the audience files in they are prepared that the show is about to begin when an Usher (Deborah Hay) enters the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, wearing a bone fide Shaw Festival usher’s uniform. and gets our attention quickly.  She stands very close to one of the entrances, unobtrusive.  “Clap once if you hear me.” We clap once. As more people are aware things are happening, she says, perhaps a bit louder, “Clap twice if you hear me.” We clap twice, louder. And then when we are silent, she says, “Clap three times if you hear me.” And we do and she has our undivided attention.  Deborah Hay as the Usher has that wonderful sense of awkwardness that a person, such as an Usher, would display if they had to do public speaking. The Usher talks about some philosophical stuff and reacts to the self-deprecation. Hay is wonderful here. She waits while we turn off our cell phones. She explains what ‘silence’ and ‘Do Not Disturb’ mean and how they don’t mean what we hope they should mean with a cell phone.

The cast quietly enters the space with the audience and takes seats among us. They are casually dressed and fit in quite nicely, except for that gentleman over there in pants, a jacket and a Shaw Festival t-shirt. He’s quietly snoring. He is Patrick Galligan. And when it’s time for the lottery to take place to pick who will play “Everybody” and the other characters, Galligan is ‘awoken’ so he can enter the playing space to pick a random ball from a rotating case that indicates his/the characters.

Director László Bérczes has left this a bit messy. Actors pick a ball and open it to reveal a wide swath of material which holds the clue to the character they will play. The problem is that when the actor unfurls the material one can’t decipher what it says to know what character they are playing. Frustrating. For my performance Donna Soares is chosen as “Everybody.” Soares illuminates the angst, gut-squeeze one would get when you know you have to make a journey to which you will not return. It’s a thoughtful, committed performance.

Other characters quietly reveal themselves. Across the aisle from me is a stylish woman in a short, white wig, a yellow outfit and yellow sandals, one of which she has taken off. This is “Death” played by a buoyant Sharry Flett, who gathers her stuff and the one sandal and goes down to the playing area. Over the course of the play, Sharry Flett will appear in a track-suit with a kind of skull emblem, using walking sticks and the most cheerful disposition as she leads her ‘followers’ around the stage.  

While “Everybody” has to prepare a presentation for God about how she lived her life,  many of the other characters are surprised that God even exists. This is a gentle joke on the part of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins rendered meaningless by director László Bérczes’ direction of Deborah Hay who plays God. This time Hay is dressed in a weird silver jumpsuit costume (Sim Suzer is the designer) goggles and holding a microphone through which Hay is directed to bellow, producing a wobbly sound that distorts everything she says. Are we to believe that people would doubt the existence of God if this bellowing, ostentatious rendition was out there? I don’t think so. I don’t criticize the gifted actress playing God—I question the lack of thought of the director.

László Bérczes has several scenes played in totally darkness with only the faces of cast members illuminated by the screens of cell phones. Disconcerting. This takes the audience out of the action and the argument and alienates them.

Comment.  Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has rethought Everybody to speak to our modern world. He asks us to ponder our world, how we live our lives, to live better, recycle, eat healthy, cherish life and live it well. The cast are committed to realizing the play. But for the most part László Bérczes’ direction and that damned tree thwarts them at almost every turn.

Produced by the Shaw Festival

Plays until: Oct. 8, 2022.

Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes, (no intermission).

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