- Title: Everybody
- Written by: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Anonymous
- Director: Laszlo Berczes
- Actors: Deborah Hay, Andrew Broderick, Sharry Flett, Patrick Galligan, Julie Lumsden, Michael Man, Alana Randall, Kiera Sangster, Travis Seetoo and Donna Soares
- Company: Shaw Festival
- Venue: Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre
- City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, ont
- Year: Runs to Oct. 8, 2022
- COVID-19 measures: None.
Everybody is for everybody. I want to make that clear right off the top of this review.
Because I’m worried that in describing this Shaw Festival production – no matter how many times I use words like “glorious”, “life-affirming” or “hilarious” – it’s going to sound like the type of show anybody who is not a complete and utter theatre nerd will want to avoid.
Yes, Everybody is a new American adaptation of an anonymously written, 15th-century English morality play – a genre of drama that doesn’t have individualized characters and a story, but features a generic protagonist interacting with personified ideas or concepts like Fellowship and Goods (here modernized to Friendship and Stuff).
And, yes, Everybody is primarily about Death and how (almost) everyone and everything will abandon you in the end.
But Everybody is also the most accessible production at the Shaw Festival so far this season – as thought-provoking as any of Bernard Shaw’s plays, but much more in tune with the thinking of our current times (the better to challenge that thinking).
It’s also the most entertaining show so far this season – and the only one that might make you believe in the existence of God (if you don’t already).
To top it off, Everybody has a running time of just over an hour and a half – so you can get a couple glasses of Niagara wine in afterward before bed.
Say what you will about how nasty and brutish life was in medieval times, at least it was short – and its stage writers seem to have understood that.
Most of Everybody’s appeal, mind you, has to do with the living playwright Brendan Jacob-Jenkins, whose self-aware adaptations have been seen at the Shaw Festival before (An Octoroon, 2017). He finds clever ways to point out what’s problematic about old texts – while making you fall in love with them at the same time.
In this case, he’s given Everyman, the original title of this play, the feel of a contemporary, questioning version of Our Town.
In the place of the folksy omniscient stage manager of that Thornton Wilder play, however, Everybody has a sweet, unassuming and all-seeing usher, explaining everything to the audience. She is played by Deborah Hay, who also doubles as God, a role her fans (I count myself among them) would say she was born to play.
Wearing X-ray goggles and a ridiculous light-up halo, shouting into a microphone that distorts her voice in various alien ways, Hay gives us a creator who is capricious and absurd as the real one. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen her do before – and as ferociously funny a performance as she’s given at the Shaw Festival since her breakout starring role there in Born Yesterday back in 2009.
As for the Everybody’s titular character, who is summoned by Death (a very amusing Sharry Flett) to a reckoning with God but allowed time to find someone to accompany him in the play, the casting is a bit complicated to explain.
A group of Shaw actors are assigned parts by lottery at each performance – one of whom ends up playing Everybody.
The nightly randomization of roles is not a new idea in theatre – but it works brilliantly here due to the way Jacobs-Jenkins has structured his adaptation. Not only does it underline the theme that Death comes for the good and the bad alike and there is no rhyme or reason to it, but it neatly dodges representational politics (while also engaging with them).
At any given performance at the Shaw Festival, Everybody – who is supposed to represent any human on the planet – might be played by an actor who is Black, Asian, Métis or white, a performer of one gender or another.
Humanism has got a bit of a bad rep in recent years – and the colour-blind casting that was championed as progressive in theatre not too long ago has been cast out in favour of colour-conscious casting.
But the representational wheel is always turning, and Jacob-Jenkins has written a number of scenes meant to show the wisdom of our current casting ways and to interrogate it.
There were many individual performances that I loved the evening I saw Everybody, but it seems a little pointless to praise, say, Patrick Galligan’s fabulously fickle take on Friendship given he’s most likely not going to be playing that role on any given night. Indeed, there are more than 100 different ways this show might be cast.
But Hungarian director Laszlo Berczes – back after directing a beautiful production of The Glass Menagerie at the Shaw Festival a few years ago – certainly seems to know how to bring out the playfulness both in veterans of the company, such as Flett, Galligan and Keira Sangster, and new and newish ensemble, such as Alana Randall and Michael Man, alike.
From Hungary, he’s brought along the set design of Balazs Cziegler, whose whimsical vision of “everywhere” is a tree of life surround by grassy hills that characters (or concepts, I suppose) keep tripping or sliding on (they are literal slippery slopes). Sim Suzer’s wry costumes are just as delightfully droll. Take a risk and go see this one, everybody.
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