Stage Door Review


Wednesday, July 20, 2022


by Branden Jacob-Jenkins, directed by László Bérczes

Shaw Festival, Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

June 17-October 8, 2022

Everyman: “O, Deth, thou cummest whan I had thee leest in mynde”

The Shaw Festival is currently presenting the Canadian premiere of Everybody, a play from 2017 by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. If the playwright’s name sounds familiar it is because the Festival presented his best-known play, An Octoroon (2014), in 2017 and this year ARC presented his play Gloria (2015) in Toronto. All three plays reveal Jacobs-Jenkins’ interest in genre and in Everybody the genre Jacobs-Jenkins investigates is the medieval morality play.

Everybody is based on the play Everyman (c.1510), one of the first great plays in English. Until relatively recently Everyman was thought to have been the source for other plays of a similar kind, but starting in 1984 research began to argue that the English Everyman is really as translation of the Dutch play Elckerlijc (written c.1470, printed 1495) by Peter van Diest. Elckerlijk in modern Dutch means “everyone” or “everybody”, so Jacobs-Jenkins’ title is closer the source.

One source for Elckerlijc lies in the parable of “Barlaam and Josaphat”, a Christianized version of the story of Buddha, that made its way via translation from Sanskrit to Arabic to Georgian to Greek to Latin and was collected in the anthology called the Golden Legend (c.1259-66) by Jacobus de Voragine, one of the most read books of the Middle Ages. The name of the two main characters point to the parable’s Buddhist origins. “Barlaam” is thought to be a corrupted version of the Sanskrit “bhagavan”, one of the epithets for Buddha, and Josaphat a corrupted version of the Sanskrit “bodhisattva”, a person seeking enlightenment.

Jacobs-Jenkins mentions both the Dutch original and the origins in a Buddhist parable in the text of the play. These references have two important functions. First, anyone who has studied the English Everyman will immediately see that Jacobs-Jenkins’ is quite a close translation of the Middle English play into 21st-century hipster speak. By pointing out that the English Everyman is itself a translation Jacobs-Jenkins helps justify his approach of creating an Everyman for our time. Second, anyone who has studied the English Everyman will also know that the play firmly upholds the tenets of Catholicism in speaking of sin and the afterlife. By pointing out that Everyman has Buddhist origins, Jacobs-Jenkins helps justify his de-Christianization of the play which then makes it very like a Buddhist parable.

Jacobs-Jenkins’ play begins before we are aware of it. An usher in a Shaw Festival uniform launches into one of the most awkward pre-show housekeeping announcements you’ve ever heard. Anyone who has attended either the Shaw or Stratford Festivals will recognize the person playing the Usher as Deborah Hay. Those familiar with Everyman will see that the Usher is the equivalent of the Messenger who begins that play.

After a lengthy review of the house rules the Usher announces the appearance of the first major character, God, who after a quick change on stage, is also played by Hay. God laments, just as God does in Everyman that human beings, the creatures she most loves, constantly disobey her. As we know from Romans 6:23,“For the wages of sin is death”. Therefore, God sends for her assistant Death (Sharry Flett) to choose a random person for death and to show us how people react when summoned.

To make the selection of the one to die appear completely random, five actors appear, all of whom have memorized the entire play. One will be chosen to play Everybody. The others will play other characters. An audience member is selected to choose the name of this performance’s Everybody from a tombola. As Jacobs-Jenkins self-satirically explains via the Usher, “It is required that the actors’ roles be decided by lottery every night in an attempt to more closely thematize the randomness of death while also destabilizing pre-conceived notions about identity, blah blah blah”.

As it happened the Everybody at my performance was Patrick Galligan, and it is that performance and roles assigned to the others that I will describe. Jacobs-Jenkins may make fun of this gimmick, but it is still a gimmick and not even an original one. It has been around for a long time. In 2006, director Matthew Jocelyn used this same technique for his production of Pierre Corneille’s play The Liar (1644), where there was far less reason for it. I would feel much more comfortable recommending this play if the lottery were fixed in favour of the best actor available or if the lottery were eliminated entirely. But it is built into the text and is the play’s most significant flaw.

In Everybody Jacobs-Jenkins elevates the humour already present in Everyman. Everybody, not fully aware of his situation, asks Death if she could come back another day and when that won’t work asks if she will take a bribe to leave him alone. Terrified that he must make his frightening journey to the afterlife alone, Everybody then seeks out someone to accompany him to make the trip less fearful. Everyman asks Fellowship, Kindred and Cousin and Goods to accompany him, while Everybody asks Friendship, Kindred and Cousin and, in the best renaming, Stuff. The first three swear an eternal bond with Everybody, but when he names what we wants them to do, they all back off.

The response of Friendship is the funniest. She says, “I would literally go to hell and back for you”. He says that’s perfect except that they aren’t coming back. “OH HEEEEELLLL NO!….”, she says. “But you promised me ‘to hell –’”? says Everybody, to which Friendship responds, “‘And back?’. Remember I said: ‘And back?’ We’ve always had these communication issues”.

Everybody thinks Stuff belongs to him and therefore should go with him. She, however, makes an important point that far more people should heed that nothing really belongs to anyone. After Everybody is gone what he thinks is his will be thrown away or belong to other people.

Before his encounters with Friendship, Kindred and Cousin and Stuff, Jacobs-Jenkins places a long blackout in which we hear Everybody’s voice reflect on each abandonment. Everybody says he can’t tell if what is happening is real or a dream. Another time he says he feels as if he is in a play. The notion that the physical world is only a dream (the topos vita somnium brevis) exists both in Platonic philosophy and in Hinduism and Buddhism. The notion that the world is a stage (the topos theatrum mundi, is also ancient and also goes back at least to Plato. Everybody’s meditations, especially his last on the loss of Stuff, already lead to a view of death as not leaving the real world for an afterlife but an awakening from the real world to the spiritual world.

This idea, already in the English Everyman, is emphasized in Everybody. Just like Everyman, Everybody discovers even more essential qualities that will not continue after death. He meets Understanding (Deborah Hay), Mind (Donna Soares), Strength (Travis Seetoo), Five Wits (Julie Lumsden) and Beauty (Kiera Sangster). Understanding will go with him up to the last, but the other four will not. To his surprise Everybody finds that there is a quality that will accompany him into the afterlife. That is Love (Andrew Broderick) and it is Jacobs-Jenkins’ substitute for Good Deeds and Confession in the Catholic-oriented Everyman.

Since Love comes to Everybody without Everybody having to take any action, we wonder if Jacobs-Jenkins conceives of Love in the Christian mode of divine grace or whether it is a virtue inside Everybody that he has only just now become aware of. On the other hand, also unbidden, comes Evil Deeds (Michael Man) to accompany Everybody into the afterlife. The weighing of Good Deeds (or here, Love) versus Evil Deeds is found Buddhism and Taoism and is related to karma, or the effect of a person’s actions on a better or worse rebirth. Jacobs-Jenkins never mentions rebirth, so we have to assume that when Everybody goes off to give the account of his life to God, both Love and Evils Deeds will speak and God will determine whether Everybody goes to Heaven or Hell.

In the original Everyman, an Angel descends and takes Everyman’s soul to Heaven, saying, “Thy rekenynge is crystall clere”. Jacobs-Jenkins has no such character as an Angel and provides no such assurance. After Everyman’s ascent, the original has a Doctor appear to tell us the moral of what we have seen. In Everybody the moral is delivered by our guide the Usher, who gives a lovely speech basically saying that we should pay more attention to how we lead our lives and that we should all be kinder to one another. This may sound simplistic but after two years of the pandemic the Usher’s conclusion carries more weight that it likely did when Everybody was first produced.

A character not present in Everyman whom Jacobs-Jenkins adds to the play is a small Child (Alana Randall). When Everybody is desperate he asks the child, a stranger, if she will go with him. She flees. At the end of the play Randall returns as Time, also absent in Everyman, who points out that the time has come for the show to be over. This, like Jacobs-Jenkins’ reference to Everybody’s dream as like a theatre, is Brechtian device to make us aware that we have been watching a performance of a play, but simultaneously it also means that the time has come for Everybody to take his leave.

All the actors who have fixed roles have been very well cast. Deborah Hay plays the Usher, God and Understanding, which in this production are really only two roles since Hay plays Understanding while dressed as the Usher. Hay’s comedic talents  are on full display first as the awkward Usher, over-reliant on her notes to get her through simple housekeeping measures, such as a cellphone announcement. Gradually, Hay’s Usher begins to speculate on the nature of the play and its sources and drifts into a type of reverie as she speaks. Embarrassed she suddenly snaps out of it to introduce God.

Hay’s portrayal of God is unlike any you have seen before. Wearing swirly dark glasses because God is blind, Hay’s God totters about the stage raging into a mic against humanity in a register several levels lower than the voice she used as the Usher. Hay gives us the impression that God is slightly off her rocker. Much humour comes from Hay showing us that God is aware she is ranting in vain and she tries to rein herself in before lowering the mic and simply despairing about humankind, the creation that God loved above all else.

Sharry Flett seems positively delighted to be playing a role like Death, a role so unlike anything she has played at the Shaw before. Flett glides about the stage, a twinkle in her eye, as perhaps the jolliest portrait of Death you’ve ever seen.

Although he makes a late appearance, Andrew Broderick makes a strong impression as Love. His grace of movement and gentleness of voice are calming both for Everybody and for us who have seen Everybody face desertion from nearly everyone.

Though every performance will be different because of the lottery, I will say that Patrick Galligan gave a superb performance as Everybody. He charts Everybody’s mental progress in fine detail from joking disbelief to certainty that he can find someone to accompany him to anger to despair. This is especially moving when Everybody can do nothing to prevent Five Senses from leaving. Yet, Galligan shows that faced with the inevitable, Everybody can muster himself to confront his fate. At that moment all his previous cowardice turns to a sort of heroism as Love and Evil Deeds help him off.

Everybody is staged in the round at the Studio Theatre with a set by Balázs Cziegler. A large tree with a few fall leaves is its main feature along with a few hillocks and five large stones. The green lawn extends from the set itself up all of the stairways into the audience. This intrusion of the set into the audience makes sense because director László Bérczes calls for frequent entrances and exits by actors not just through the four main entrances to the stage but through the audience. Following a line in the text that Everybody sees himself on the stage in his dream watched by an audience, Bérczes emphasizes the point that we are part of Everybody’s dream as well as witnesses to the moral that the stage play will draw.

Everyman continues to be moving and relevant because it so unwaveringly focusses on the human experience of dying. “O, Deth, thou cummest whan I had thee leest in mynde”, says the medieval Everyman. We act as if it is a surprise yet we know that it comes to all. Jacobs-Jenkins has brought the medieval play into the present in terms of the slangy way his characters speak and by removing all the Catholic doctrine in the original. Jacobs-Jenkins emphasizes the play’s humour, but still brings out the fear in Everybody of his increasing aloneness.

The possible players of the role of Everybody are very uneven. How one experiences the play depends heavily on who is chosen and since no one knows who will be chosen until after the performance begins, one can hope for a good experience but it cannot be guaranteed. Best of luck to all who attend.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Sharry Flett as Death with Kiera Sangster, Donna Soares, Julie Lumsden, Travis Seetoo and Patrick Galligan; Deborah Hay as God; Deborah Hay as Understanding, Alana Randall as Time and Sharry Flett as Death; Patrick Galligan as Everybody with Kiera Sangster as Evil Deeds and Andrew Broderick as Love. © 2022 David Cooper.

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