Human beings may find a cure for death someday, but until that happens, we all live with the knowledge we are going to die. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Everybody, which runs through Dec. 30 at Artists Repertory Theatre, examines this universal truth under the co-direction of Jessica Wallenfels and Dámaso Rodriguez.
The cast of ten, at least as the play begins, consists of five “Somebodies,” and characters representing Death, Love and All the Shitty Things, among others.
Sarah Lucht, a resident member of Artists Rep since 2013, appears first as the Usher, complete with wig, giant glasses and clipboard, advising the audience to turn off their cell phones and unwrap their cough drops. With the audience laughing, she explains what follows has been made from an old thing called a morality play, and that “some people in this play are not going to play people.” Lucht then turns for a moment and transforms into God.
In a booming, demonic voice, God addresses the audience: “I need no eyes! I possess the vantage of divinity and from it I see it is you, Laffer—if you indeed exist—who are unseeing—putting such esteem in your earthly vision, living in such arrogance and pride, such smug self-satisfaction, so pleased with yourself and so very deformed from my…dreams for you.” The audience is now silent.
With this scolding delivered by a rather unfamiliar God, Everybody grabs your attention and pulls you along toward the inevitable—well, you know. If you have ever contemplated your own mortality—in other words, if you are human—you will not be able to look away.
Scenic designer Tim Stapleton, a 36-year professional and National Endowment for the Arts Fellow, has created a simple set with a huge grave-like mound spilling from the upstage wall. Like Chekhov’s gun, the mound must play some part in the story, though it seems purposely unclear until the final scene what it will reveal.
Ted Rooney, who last appeared with Artists Rep as Abraham Lincoln in A Civil War Christmas, presents an appealing, mostly good-natured Death, though one who can turn mean when his job calls for it. At God’s instruction, Death calls five characters, each called Somebody, to the stage, where they determine by lottery which role each will play. Consider for a moment that this lottery is not rigged, that with 120 possible combinations each performance is bound to be different, and that each Somebody must, therefore, learn five parts.
For the opening night performance, Artists Rep resident member and veteran of 40 shows Michael Mendelson drew the starring role of Everybody, the man summoned by Death to account for his life and sins, after which he must follow Death into the next world, whatever that world turns out to be. Mendelson portrays Everybody as the neutral character he must be, since he represents all of us. He reacts to his frightening predicament as any of us would, forcing us to feel his fear and pain as if it were our own.
In one of the play’s most moving scenes, Everybody is left with the only companion who hasn’t deserted him: Love, played by Falynn Burton, an Artists Rep newcomer and second-year student at Portland Actors Conservatory. Love compels Everybody to strip to his underwear and run around the stage shouting, “I don’t love—That I have no control! But I have no control! This body is just meat! I surrender! I have no control!” Over and over, nearing exhaustion, Everybody repeats versions of this mantra. Jacobs-Jenkins’ stage direction says “Everybody—naked, exhausted—achieves something. Catharsis? Blackout.”
Another memorable scene comes with an effect from prop master and puppet designer Robert Amico, who recently received a Drammy Award for Excellence in Puppetry for his role in The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show at Oregon Children’s Theatre. A giant death’s head and a pair of skeletal arms appear, recalling the macabre imagery of Europe’s Black Death.
This medieval connection makes sense, considering the play’s origin. Jacobs-Jenkins, whose Obie winner An Octoroon appeared at Artists Rep last season, adapted Everybody from the 15th-century morality play Everyman, which itself was probably adapted from an earlier Dutch work. The longevity of this story, variations of which have appeared in well-known works such as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, speaks to humankind’s enduring anxiety about death and what, if anything, comes after.
The large assortment of characters with names like Stuff and Mind can be confusing, especially with several actors playing more than one role, but it helps that many characters’ names are displayed on their costumes. The ensemble lacks a weak link, but that’s to be expected with an Artists Rep production. Even fourth-grade student Eva Rodríguez, appearing as Girl and Time, has two prior stage credits.
Wallenfels and Rodriguez’s 90-minute production lives up to Jacobs-Jenkins’ script, which was a 2018 Pulitzer finalist. Don’t go see Everybody in search of light entertainment. Do go if you are a human with a soul and an expiration date. Everybody should appeal to everybody, as we are all destined to follow Everybody.
Everybody appears Tuesday–Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday–Sunday at 2 p.m., through Dec. 30 at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison Street. There is no performance on Dec. 25. For more information or to purchase tickets go to artistsrep.org.