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A CurtainUp Review

I was just talking to "God" and even though you seem to have forgotten about "God," "God" thinks about you pretty much all the time and now "God" wants you, so I'm here to come grab you. . ."God" also needs a report from you. . .
— "Death."

Brook Bloom and Marylouise Burke (photo: Monique Carboni)
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has been turning out a much applauded play each year since 2014. He also nabbed a MacArthur genius prize and became a Pershing Square Signature Center Resident 5 playwright.

While each of the talented Jacob-Jenkins' plays is fresh and different ( Octoroon , Appropriate and Gloria ) they have one thing in common: All delve into how you can't ever really put a "The End" sign on the past.

In Everybody, now in its World premiere at the Signature Center's Diamond Theatre, Jacob-Jenkins goes back even further than he did with his version of Dion Boucicault's 1859 melodrama An Octoroon. A 15th century morality play called Everyman is now his dramatic building block. It chronicles an allegorical Everyman's accounting of his life to the Almighty before journeying to the Great Beyond.

With Marylouise Burke cast as the Almighty's assistant, "Death", Jacob-Jensen is clearly back in the satiric spoofing territory of An Octoroon. Though there's no saying "Get Lost" to this "Death". . . relax.

I can't think of anyone who does "adorably quirky" better than Marylouise Burke. So, rest assured that her Grim Reaper is going to be more cute and ditzy than scary.

That's not to say that Burke's "God" is just fooling around. Her intent in summoning a representative "Everybody" to account is literally deadly. However, not being a queen of mean, she'll allow time for her chosen "Everybody" to fine tune that report to win favor with "God" and also try to find somebody to go along on that final journey.

As Burke is hardly a traditional choice to play the Almighty's assistant, neither is the actor playing "God." Like "Death" this "God" is a woman. She's also African-American and wears an usher's uniform.

All this may well have you wondering what happened to the 15th Century Everyman. What happened, of course, is that the witty and inventive Jacob-Jenkins has put his own comic spin on that play.

With the help of Director Lila Neugebauer and eight versatile actors besides Ms. Burke, Everybody manages to be a very much "now" production. Though it is indeed about death, it's a cheeky, provocative and laugh-filled departure from the very serious inspirational source's firm belief in an afterlife.

Since death remains shrouded in uncertainty, our exploration of that inevitable happening ends up being all about life. Still Everybody, actually sticks pretty closely to the old tale's plot:
The theory driving the story is that what happens to us in this great unknown depends on how we've lived our lives. In other words, the good and evil deeds of one's life will be tallied by God after death, as in a ledger book. This plays out as an allegorical accounting of his life by Everyman, as a representative of all mankind. He summons other allegorical characters with the hope of improving his "account" and accompanying him on this final journey. Each of these characters personifies an abstract idea. And, through the interactions with them, Everyman ultimately realizes that he must journey on alone.
The production is set up so that members of the cast take on different allegorical roles from performance to performance — Everybody, Friendship/Strength, Kinship/Mind, Courtship/Beauty/All the Shiny Evil Things, Stuff/Senses. However, Jocelyn Bioh plays "God" all the time and also triple tasks.

Having the actors emerge from seats right alongside the audience helps to establish the playful tone. ("Everybody" took a seat right in front of me just before my performance began). This is also true for the way the "turn off your cell phone" business evolves into a stand-up comedy routine and then an integral part of the play.

There's no denying that this is all very clever and audience involving. And, as is usual for any of this company's productions, the designers' work is outstanding. Laura Jellinek's final transformation of the stage that's bare except for a row of the theater's seats is especially impressive.

It should be said, however, that this whimsical sort of satire isn't everyone's coup-de-comic-riff. For this viewer the humor ran thin early on, picked up with Burke's arrival, but ultimately left me less satisfied with Everybody than the author's previous plays. But hey, that Residency 5 means I have four more chances to fall fully in love again with Mr. Jacob-Jenkins' work.

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Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed By Lila Neugebauer
Cast: Jocelyn Bioh, Brooke Bloom, Michael Braun, Marylouise Burke, Louis Cancelmi, Lilyana Tiare Cornell, David Patrick Kelly, Lakisha Michelle May, Chris Perfetti.
Sets: Laura Jellinek
Costumes: Gabriel Berry
Lighting: Matt Frey
Sound: Brandon Wolcott
Stage Manager: Amanda Spooner
Runnng time: 90 minutes, without intermisson
Signature Theatre's Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center
From 1/31/17; opening 2/21/17; closing 3/12/17
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at February 15th Press preview

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