Review: "Chances Are ...that you'll have a great time..."

Review: Everybody | Stage West
Chances Are...that you'll have a great time at Stage West's Everybody, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' revamp of the Medieval morality play Everyman.

by Jill Sweeney
published Sunday, January 6, 2019

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Fort Worth — “Here begins a treatise how the high Father of Heaven sends Death to summon every creature to come and give account of their lives in this world, and is in the manner of a moral play.” So kicks off the 15th century play Everyman—sounds like quite the barn-burner, huh? Through allegory, the play’s unknown author (possibly a Dutchman with the first name “Peter,” but scholarly opinions vary) strives to give his fellow men some guidance on the big questions: What happens to you when you die? How do you live a good life? Is there any hope for salvation waiting for any of us?

Never one to shy away from similarly big questions in his work, playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins adapted this classic into a more contemporary mode, titling it more casually—and more inclusively—Everybody. As with his adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon (titled An Octoroon, and staged brilliantly by Stage West as last season’s closer), Jacobs-Jenkins tells the same story for the most part, but tells it slant, and Stage West’s production, a regional premiere, excels at getting across not only the play’s humor, but its depth of feeling as well.

Truth be told, it’s hard for me to review this show for you. I mean, I can review a show for you—specifically the 8 p.m. Dec. 29, 2018 performance. But Jacobs-Jenkins includes a twist in this play, one that might seem like a gimmick if it didn’t so perfectly reinforce the play’s themes. In Everybody, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2018, “everybody” means “anybody”: the actors who portray Everybody and the play’s other allegorical figures are chosen each night via a lottery. So there’s no telling which of the 120 possible variations in casting an audience will see on any given night. But don’t fret—with this uniformly excellent cast, you’re in good hands no matter how the parts shake out.

So, to the story. After a brief meta-theatrical introduction (one of the playwright’s specialties), God (Marcus M. Mauldin) appears (or “God” with finger quotes as He’s styled throughout the production) to register his displeasure with how humanity is choosing to live their lives. He calls on Death (Amy Mills) to go fetch Everybody to the afterlife to give an accounting of their life. Death plucks her victims—actors Megan Haratine, Olivia Cinquepalmi, Jovane Caamaño, Bwalya Chisanga, and Mark Shum (Stage West’s managing director)—and gives them the skinny: their end is pretty seriously nigh. They all plead with Death for a delay, for some sort of 11th hour reprieve, and finally, for a little company for this final journey. Death agrees—and why not? Who’d be crazy enough to agree to follow someone to their death? It’s here that the parts are selected, cast members given their roles, and our Everybody (at the production I saw, Bwalya Chisanga) emerges, just prior to an intermission (a risky move, and one not in the original script, this was done presumably to give the actors a moment to orient themselves, but risks losing the show’s momentum).

Following intermission, we resume following Everybody as she sets out to search for a companion. Turned down first by Friendship (Haratine), Cousin (Shum), Kinship (Caamaño), and Stuff (Cinquepalmi), Everybody is joined by Love (Ryan Michael Friedman), who forces her to strip almost naked and face the reality of bodily decay. As Death comes to collect her, they’re joined briefly by Strength (Haratine), Beauty (Caamaño), Senses (Cinquepalmi), Mind (Shum), and Understanding (Mauldin), but they abandon Everybody one by one until all that’s left to follow her to her grave is Love, and latecomer Evil Shitty Things, the personification of every bad deed she committed in life. And off Everybody goes, to an uncertain fate, as Death, Time (Summer Stern), and Understanding have one last confab before the lights go out and we’re left to ponder our own reckoning.

If the cast is shaken by the uncertainty inherent to the production, they don’t show it. Chisanga threw herself fully into the role of Everybody, and brought a delicate vulnerability to the character. The sequence where Love forces her to strip and run through the theater in her underwear could be cringing uncomfortable in the wrong hands, but Chisanga manages to create a real emotional arc for the character in that moment—you feel her movement from confusion to humiliation to empowerment. Forgive me if I let my Catholic education show for a moment: interestingly, the character of Love does not appear in the original text—the character was Good Deeds, which had a particular place in Catholic theology, and he forced Everyman to attend confession before agreeing to accompany him on his journey. Here, Love still requires an inward examination and mortification, but a secular, individualistic one rather than keeping the religious component.

The rest of the cast is as deft with the humorous moments of the piece as with the more serious portions. Mauldin moves seamlessly from role to role, bringing a light touch to characters who could easily go over the top. Haratine’s opening monologue as Friendship, full of the banalities of a Facebook-level friendship, absolutely slayed (“You seem depressed”, she says to Everybody upon seeing her. “Is it still the election?”). Each cast member has more than one moment to shine—at the performance reviewed, Caamaño and Shum as the sympathetic but unengaged Kinship and Cousin, Cinquepalmi’s apologetic Stuff, and Haratine’s second turn as an Amazonian Strength are particular highlights. Who knows what combination you’ll get on the night you visit? But no matter the configuration, the cast is ready to deliver the goods.

It must be unnerving to go onstage each night with absolutely no idea of the parts you’ll be playing. But it would be equally unnerving to be asked to take the reins of such a challenging production right before rehearsals started, which was the position director Jake Nice was in when the original director of the piece dropped out unexpectedly. So kudos to him for embracing the uncertainty and delivering such a strong production. Inseung Park’s set is dominated by a large, somewhat ambiguous figure—a deconstructed globe? Astrolabe? Moon chart? Calendar? Whatever it may be, it’s suggestive of time out of joint, with a lovely patina to give it a sense of age. Equally suggestive is the lighting design by Tristan Decker, which was instrumental in following shifts in location and character. Another lovely touch is in the costume design by Ryan D. Schaap, which incorporates layers for each character which can be gradually stripped as layers of delusion and artifice fall away from Everybody on their journey.

So far, Stage West is two for two for its productions of this powerful playwright’s work, and it’s a strong start to what looks to be a heck of a 40th season for this Fort Worth mainstay. It’s a show by Everybody, for everybody—come be a part of a unique theatrical experience every single time. 

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