Theater Review: EVERYBODY (Brown Paper Box Co. at the Pride Arts Center in Chicago)

Post image for Theater Review: EVERYBODY (Brown Paper Box Co. at the Pride Arts Center in Chicago)

by Lawrence Bommer on July 17, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


You don’t see morality plays like Everyman anymore — and not just because it’s not the 15th century. We shy away from such absolutes as Death and even Good Deeds. Everybody, with its nonspecific title an improvement on the original, modernizes a hugely popular medieval masterwork. The anonymously written Everyman was an allegorical depiction of the titular Christian’s pursuit of salvation in the teeth of death. So is it the right time for a 2018 remake of a Tudor hit?

A regional premiere by Brown Paper Box Co. that’s as interactive as the original work (performed in town squares usually by locals), this Pulitzer finalist is Branden Jacob-Jenkins’ modern equivalent of what could equally be called a mortality play. His Everybody is all but drenched in our contemporary denial of death as it confronts, with sometimes disconcerting flippancy and glibness, our inevitable but never synchronized ends.

Impressively, all eleven actors — a calculated mix of gender, race, orientation, age, and ethnicity — have memorized all the lines of all the personages. That’s essential because the premise (or gimmick) here is that, since death is random, the casting should be too. The cast is Kenny the Bearded (real name and description), Chelsea David, Alys Dickerson, Nora Fox, Alexandra Moorman, Francesca Sobrer, Hal Cosentino, Hannah Green, Alex Madda, Donovan Session, and Tyler Anthony Smith.

So a lottery is held on stage each night to determine who plays what — with the exception of Kenny the Bearded who always plays Death (which makes sense since its eternal anyway). Also, Ms. David — portraying a rather officious and long-winded usher — emcees the action, presides over the title character’s application to heaven, and even admits latecomers (to their well-deserved embarrassment).

So a mixed bag of actors plays a mixed bag of parts, with supposedly 120 casting variations possible. Presumably, no version will be repeated in the four-week run.

On opening night this supposed scrambling of roles yielded a surprisingly smooth 90-minute presentation, with Dickerson properly anguished in the title role. Hewing close to the 508-year-old plot, Kenny the Bearded’s magisterial Death tasks Everybody with finding a witness to Everybody’s redeeming actions (who’s also willing to die with and for Everybody). These characters — abstractions of Understanding, My Mind, Kin, Five Senses, Beauty, Strength, even a little girl (Fox) named Time — will testify on Everybody’s behalf. That’s assuming that the pilgrim to immortality can convince them to stand by Everybody to the bitter end.

But these personifications of human attributes prove to be fickle, fair-weather friends, fated to desert Everybody who’s destined (or doomed) to be as alone at the end as at the beginning. Stuff (Everybody’s worldly goods, as in hand-held devices) is infinitely transferable and belongs to no one in particular. Love’s loyalty founders on body-image issues. Everybody refuses to be fobbed off with a standard-issue Lifetime Achievement Award.

When these unhelpful allies promise to accompany Everybody “to hell and back,” the operative words are “and back.” Otherwise it’s a deal breaker. Jacobs-Jenkins strategically interrupts Everybody’s journey with offstage, blackout arguments over whether political correctness is proof of or an obstacle to identity authenticity.

But, in a sardonic twist on this 1510 pageant play, our wanna-be-repentant Everybody is not saved by the unswerving devotion of the dying person’s Good Deeds. Quite the contrary, it’s the Evil Deeds that finish the race. That’s surely a sad reflection on our hard and mean times. Why, you wonder, do all the “good guys” desert Everybody but the rotten moments matter most? I guess once on Facebook, always on Facebook.

In any case, however cunning and convincing the staging by Erin Shea Brady, Everybody is, for better or worse, a comically hip, multi-winking “meta” piece fit for the present. It doesn’t exactly trivialize Everyman but its know-it-all irreverence, especially when repeatedly throwing the audience’s inevitable deaths in their collective face (the “incoming tide”), takes its toll. By play’s end you taste your mortality big time. You won’t need to bungee-jump for quite some time.

The joke is definitely on us — except there is none, despite the shallow guffaws of an opening night, just sweating after they turn off the A/C. If you go, it really helps to know Everyman, if only to give this update its modern due. It is definitely the morality play we deserve.

photos by Zach Dries (click on photo for larger version)

Brown Paper Box Co.
The Buena, Pride Arts Center, 4147 N. Broadway
Fri-Sun at 7:30 (+ Thurs at 7:30 after Aug. 2)
ends on August 12, 2018
for tickets visit Brown Paper Box

Comments on this entry are closed.