Medieval artists really knew how to tackle death: with dancing skeletons, calls to judgment, and burnings at the stake. An excellent example is the morality play Everyman, in which a character representing, well, all of us, is summoned by God to account for his life. It’s a very medieval tale, making it a fascinating choice for celebrated playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins to adapt for our contemporary moment. Everybody, directed by Lila Neugebauer and now at Signature Theatre, is an exploration of death in our time — one that’s intriguing, moving, and sometimes disappointing.
In the original allegory, Everyman, wildly unprepared to meet his maker, begs his buddies to accompany him to the great beyond. Fair-weather friends like Kinship and Goods greet him enthusiastically, then skive off at when they realize that a dangerous one-way journey lies ahead. In the end, only repentance and Good Deeds (also a character in the tale) can save Everyman from damnation as he enters his grave.
Jacobs-Jenkins riffs on this structure, reveling in allegory’s unabashedly presentational quality, and implicating spectators at every turn. Actors enter from among the audience, and Laura Jellinek’s clever design features a row of theater seats—the kind we’re sitting in—staring back at us from the stage. The curtain speech, reminding us to silence cell phones and unwrap candies, appears to be delivered by an usher—until the performer in question (Jocelyn Bioh) informs us she’s actually God, here to meet her servant, Death (Marylouise Burke).
Meanwhile, the role of Everybody is cast while we watch: in a nod to the protagonist’s universal identity, and to the randomness of death, Everybody‘s key roles are distributed by lottery among a multiracial, multigenerational, multi-gendered ensemble each night. We witness Everybody du jour as they attempt to recruit companions, and struggle with the finality and solitude of the grave. Between episodes, voiceover dialogue in the darkness reveals that the scenes onstage are the dreams of an unnamed narrator who appears to be dying.
Jacobs-Jenkins’s experiment — transforming a fifteenth-century morality play into contemporary drama — is a bold one, and he updates Everyman‘s theme in moving ways. While the original proselytizes piety and repentance, Everybody finds its emotional center in the loneliness of death. Only Love (Chris Perfetti), plus Everybody’s lifetime of evil deeds, can leap into the void with him, and thus the entire play consists of a series of goodbyes. Spectators are reminded that we’re Everybodies, too, surrounded by friends, acquaintances, and strangers, but ultimately just as alone as Jacobs-Jenkins’s protagonist. Neugebauer stages the piece with precision and humor, and any member of the excellent ensemble would make an equally compelling Everybody.
At the same time, though allegory is always self-aware, repetitive self-conscious gestures suggest Jacobs-Jenkins felt some anxiety about our patience and imagination. Characters appear wearing Signature T-shirts and cracking jokes about the venue, or analyzing the drama’s themes, reminding us that it’s old (very old). Previous Jacobs-Jenkins works have featured thrilling leaps of theatrical faith; this one, less so.
So it’s a relief, in the play’s closing moments, to hear bits of the original epilogue. The medieval syntax — formal and rhyming, full of “thee”s and “spake”s — is richer and stranger than much of what we’ve seen onstage, and in the end, no less meaningful today. It’s hard not to wish Jacobs-Jenkins had trusted his material, and his audience, a little more.
By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
480 West 42nd Street
Through March 19