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Thursday evening at Appalachian State University's Valborg Theatre, the Department of Theatre and Dance presented a thought-provoking performance of American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' Everybody. Adapted from the medieval morality play Everyman which was itself a translation of the Dutch play Elckerlijc, Everybody employs personified abstract qualities as the characters (like Joy, Sadness, and Disgust in Disney Pixar's Inside Out!) and offers a spirited and abstract allegorical examination of the human condition coming to terms with the inevitability of death. As director and long-time Theatre Arts professor Joel Williams retires from teaching in June, this reflective production on life and morality serves as a poetic farewell to conclude his career in academic theatre.
Though purposefully unclear whether the play unfolds within a dreamscape, a vision, or a theater, the performance begins with a monologue by God (Elonie Quick). She wonders why her beloved creations have so severely deteriorated and disappointed her. Quick, with extraordinary voice manipulation led by sound designer Declan Lynch, seemed to truly feel the words she spoke. By ordering Death (Gabriel Cambre) to bring Everybody (Cielo Gomez) who represents all of humanity on the "journey" of dying, God seeks to hear the life choices made by Everybody and learn why the human experiment has resulted in such chaos. Everybody originally takes the form of five Somebodies staged in the audience, and when Death demands they follow him, all five Somebodies beg for time to find someone to accompany them. Afraid to die alone, Everybody desperately seeks out a companion. Abandoned by the embodiments of Friendship (Jordan Warren), Cousin (Gray Fandel) and Kinship (Kalea Fraser), and Stuff (Julian Flaco Suarez-Robles) in the face of Death, Everybody begins to truly believe their life has been a cruel joke. Without human connections or comfort in the end, what is the point?
Alone in the theater, following their debate with their disembodied self (Supriya Sinha) about the meaning of life, Everybody meets Love (Elizabeth Edwards). Only after ruthlessly stripping and breaking them down does Love agrees to accompany Everybody to the afterlife. Running in circles, literally running down the clock, Everybody repeats "I have no control," "My body is only meat," and "I surrender." It was in this scene that I saw Gomez's portrayal of Everybody as a genuine representation of the human condition. In the rapport between Edwards and Gomez, something broken, yet lovely, was acknowledged and released.
On the brink of death and peering into their grave, Beauty, Strength, Mind, Senses, and Understanding (Quick) appear and join Everybody, only to peel away one by one as the end approached. Right before the point of death, Evil (Blake Lee) arrives and plunders into the grave with Everybody and Love. Mirroring the sad, slow process of our demise where we lose our beauty, our strength, our mind, our senses, and our understanding, the enduring ties between Everybody, Love, and Evil shows what we do take with us: all the love we experience and all the evil we entertain.
Concluding so quickly, with Everybody descending to their death through the ominous "dirt hole" opening of the stage and Understanding quietly noting the necessity to sit and process all that has happened, I was left with so many questions that accumulated throughout the performance, not just about death, but about life, too. Would my friends and family accompany me through death? Is this a question I would even ask of them? Does my "stuff" really belong to me, when upon my death, it will be dispersed? What will happen to my life when I die? Are we to recount all our life choices at the end of it? And if so, just as Everybody questioned, what have I done in my life? What was – what is – its meaning? How do I live my best life, full of meaning?
Oh, all these questions! What existentialism! Perhaps, though, this abundance of questions is the point. While conjecture swirls around us, neither the questions raised in Everybody nor those configured in my mind in the hours afterward can truly be answered.
One question I am left with that can, however, be considered is the role of the conversations Everybody has when they stop recounting the "dream" of this journey and begin conversing with disembodied voices bellowing from speakers at various points throughout the show. I struggled to ascertain its connection to the larger story unfolding on stage. Originally, I thought the discussions could be illustrating the inherent difficulty of explaining the complex theory of death and the afterlife, but I became increasingly confused when the conversations digressed into arguments over the portrayal of the characters in Everybody's story as offensive and derogatory. The reason for these conversations was unclear and somewhat distracting from the growing themes of morality. Also unclear was the inclusion of much explicit language. A few interspersed emphatic expressions in face of an impending lonely death seem appropriate, but laced through much of the latter half of the play, I found them to lose their emphasis.
Nevertheless, emphasis on the way in which thoughts of death and morality manifest when faced with calamitous global upheaval and an enduring pandemic was not lost on me. The morality play flourished in Europe in the late Middle Ages and the oldest morality play dates back to the height of the Bubonic Plague, also known as the Black Death. Arising then as a response to the existential questioning of that era full of so much death and grief, it is powerful, even hopeful, to extend this form of drama into our present anxiety-filled world of war tensions, climate disruption, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The overall question lamented in Everybody – "How do we live our best life?" – is just as relevant now as it was centuries ago when written in Everyman. And, there is something sincerely gripping and compelling about a cast of twenty-something undergraduate students directed by their retiring Professor posing this complicated, tedious question about morality.
Praise must be given to stage manager Lindsay F. Nyman and technical director Matt Tyson for the complex, nuanced, and engaging production. Scenic designer Catherine DeCarolis has designed a functional set that stretches over 12 feet high and skillfully delineates the safety of Earth from the darkness of Hell. The incorporation of white, fluffy clouds suspended over the floor furthers the idea of this world as a dreamscape. The lighting, led by John Marty with assistance from Meredith Shafter, produced an atmosphere with minimal light to compliment the dark themes of the play. Particularly fascinating were the scenes where Everybody was lit with a single spotlight centerstage and her disembodied voice circled just outside the light's reach. Led in costume and makeup design by Brooke Davies, God stood tall in striking black attire, Death wielded a menacing scythe and fanciful dark dress clothing, and the costumes of Everybody and the Somebodies resembled those of the everyday person, highlighting the audience's inclusion in "everybody." And, during the Danse Macabre choreographed by Susan Lutz, five dancers graced the stage in black and white skeleton bodysuits. Performing a dance of death with life-sized plastic skeletons, the interlude brought much-needed humor into the performance!
After the final bows, Williams and Assistant Professor Dr. Derek Davidson announced a short craft talk to conclude the evening. Joined by cast members and dramaturgical research students, a wonderful conversation ensued about how we talk about morality and what we, as individuals, can do to make the most out of the time we are given and find an answer to "How do we live our best life?"
Everybody is presented by special arrangement with Dramatists Play Service, Inc., New York.
Everybody continues through Sunday, April 24. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.