If you, like me, studied theatre in college, you probably had to suffer through reading Everyman, a quintessential medieval morality play that tells the story of “Everyman” (the definition was the same then as it is now), who is told by Death that he may take one companion with him on the journey to the afterlife. After numerous embodiments of abstract concepts, such as Fellowship, Kinship, (material) Goods, and the like, abandon Everyman, he goes to the grave with only his good and bad deeds at his side.
There’s a reason Everyman, unlike some other historic texts, is no longer produced or read outside academic settings: it’s simplistic, pedantic, steeped in Catholic theology, and frankly, it’s fucking boring. Everyman may be the only play I’ve ever read where I couldn’t wait for the protagonist to just die already and get it over with.
Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins chose this half-century-old text as the inspiration for Everybody, a modern adaptation in which the majority of roles are chosen by lot each night, meaning that five actors must have all five roles memorized and ready to perform. It’s a lofty goal, if not a totally unique one, and Brown Paper Box Co. has assembled a killer cast to do it. If there’s one aspect of this show that must be praised, it’s the acting, from Kenny the Bearded’s surprisingly funny interpretation of Death, to the nuanced skill of the five actors in the randomly assigned roles. Alex Madda, who played Everybody on the night I attended, displayed particular boldness, vulnerability, and bravery in her performance. And in my experience, strong ensemble casts are led by strong leaders, so director Erin Shea Brady should be given props as well.
What I took issue with in the show was mostly the script. Any recycling of existing work begs the question of how this specific piece of art from the past is relevant now. And I’m not sure this show has any answers.
I’d initially thought that the script might create new, American Gods-esque characters, like Social Media or Celebrity, but no. The story sticks to the original very closely, down to the order in which Everybody confronts each potential companion. Okay, then—straightforward adaptation is not necessarily a bad thing. Where Everybody differs from the original is mainly in the use of contemporary language and the insertion of recorded dialogue and angsty existential monologues between scenes. Oh, and the overtly religious aspects are cut out; Everybody doesn’t go to Confession or take the Eucharist in this version.
The trouble, for me anyway, is that there’s really nothing new to be learned from this script. Maybe it has to do with my Catholic upbringing, but the knowledge that you can’t take it with you and that we all ultimately die alone is far from news to me, and I honestly have a hard time believing it’s news to anybody. Did anyone in the audience really believe that Stuff or Beauty or even the Five Senses would accompany our protagonist into death, knowing as we do, from life, that all those things stay in the world when we depart it? The script feels like something a college student wrote after reading Everyman for the first time and deciding it felt more nihilist than Catholic. That’s a great idea for a English paper, but it doesn’t make for an entertaining ninety minutes of theatre.
Basically, Everybody is an artsier modern rehash of a play that probably didn’t need to be rehashed. It’s less of a remix and more of a cover, and the remix would have been more much insightful. If medieval morality plays are more interesting to you than they are to me, perhaps you’ll enjoy this play.
Bias warning: Director and Brown Paper Box Co. member Erin Shea Brady and I attended the Goodman Theatre’s Critics Bootcamp together and have maintained a friendly relationship since.
Location: The Buena at Pride Arts Center, 4147 N Broadway St, Chicago, IL 60613
Dates: July 13–August 12, 2018
Tickets: $25. Tickets and more information available at the Brown Paper Box Co. website.
All production photos by Zach Dries.