by Tiffany Raymond, ‘Burgh Vivant
Vince Ventura and the folks at 12 Peers Theater uphold their mission to produce experimental work with their newest production, playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ 2018 Pulitzer Prize finalist, “Everybody.” There’s experimental, and there’s experimental done well. Any theatergoer knows that Venn diagram doesn’t always overlap. As a production company, 12 Peers has distinguished themselves is by doing experimental work – and consistently doing it well.
“Everybody” is based on a 15th century English morality play entitled “Everyman.” Jacobs-Jenkins’ gender-inclusive retitling is a nice nod to his version’s updated modernity. I remember reading excerpts of “Everyman” in my college British literature survey course. “Everyman” had characters like Death and Beauty. As a morality play, it was designed to teach a lesson around man’s earthly struggles and bolster Christian principles. “Everyman” is itself based on a Flemish play, which is perhaps based on a Buddhist fable. The play’s multi-country origins are shared with the audience very conversationally at the start. It’s a stark reminder that despite our differences, death and reconciling death have fascinated across history. Pondering those questions unite us in a shared curiosity and human experience that spans the centuries.
Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Everybody” maintains a cast of allegorical characters. The play’s basic premise is Death personified comes calling. Death informs the gathered group they’re each required to do a presentation for God accounting for their life. The characters offer up uneasy, disbelieving laughter followed by a sloppy slew of bribes and excuses about why they aren’t available or can’t fulfill that request. It’s reminiscent of the collective groan at the announcement of a pop quiz or having to create a PowerPoint deck that gets dropped on you at 4 pm on Friday. There’s a shared “whoa, hang on, we’re clearly not prepared” response as the characters furtively glance up to see which excuse might rouse success in delaying the proffered torture. It’s both humorous and relatable as few would embrace imminent demise with open arms. Despite the overtly instructive names, there’s a liberal seasoning of well-timed humor. In the midst of the litany of excuses, Death (played by a woman) shouts out exasperatingly, “This is hard enough without everyone thinking I’m a bitch.” There’s an unsettling pause as voices quiet and sympathies shift. Hmm, Death does have a thankless job.
As with its 15th century inspiration, God and Death still lead the charge. However, Jacobs-Jenkins moves far beyond retitling in his reimagined version. At the play’s start, the actors all draw names onstage that determines their character for that particular production. Mathematically, this translates to 120 different possible acting combinations, likely making no two productions alike. This is no trite “choose your own adventure” format; there’s a laudable amount of memorization required of each cast member given the rotating parts.
While this could be disaster in less capable hands, director Vince Ventura ensures it’s seamless. He thoughtfully leverages recorded voiceover to help ease the burden of memorization without detracting from the show’s power. The actors who portrayed their lottery-drawn characters on the evening of August 2nd were entirely comfortable with their parts, suggesting countless hours of rehearsal well-spent. In watching them, it was actually hard to imagine them playing alternate roles given how convincingly and naturally they performed their randomly assigned characters for that evening.
Both Peter Brucker’s sound design and Greg Messmer’s lighting design greatly enhance the production. The play effectively adopts the use of echo thanks to Brucker. Messmer’s lights surge and flicker at various points in synchrony with vocal intonations to create the effect and presence of a watchful higher power.
There’s a scene in which Everybody (the play’s representative human) repeatedly shouts, “This body is just meat, this body is just meat, this body is just meat, this body is just meat.” Ventura makes the repetition not the monotone maniacal cry of a madman but an unsettling evolutionary reverberation. The cry is enhanced by Brittany Tague’s choreography. She keeps “Everybody”moving about the stage, manifesting a distraught freneticism in the show’s quest to hang on to life. Ventura reminds us through “Everybody” that this vessel called our bodies is little more than the cow we casually consume. It’s both disturbing and humbling to have that repetition take effect and realize the frailty and lack of control we have over our bodies. As the play reminds us at every turn, we are not ultimately in charge.
12 Peers Theater’s production of “Everybody” plays through August 18 at the Cathedral of Learning, 4200 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.