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A CurtainUp DC Review
Jacobs-Jenkins's play is both serious and funny, with characters representing Kinship, Love, Stuff, the Senses, Cousin, Friendship and Beauty. The zingers use vernacular sayings, to excellent effect. From the get-go it is clear that the playwright happily surprises the audience with such tricks as having actors speak from seats in the audience. With the house lights still up, a character named Usher (a splendidly comic Yonatan Gebeyehu) offers the usual warnings about turning off cell phones (or else) before morphing into God. When the house lights go down, God is seated on stage in front of a crescent of light. His use of balletic hand movements are reminiscent of Indian deity. His gracefulness is mesmerizing.
Everybody goes from one stunning visual treat to another. The bare stage designed by Arnulfo Maldonado, augmented by balloons and a couple of wonderful sight gags that I won't divulge here, makes the word-play between the characters clearer. The many color changes that bathe the stage express mood sometimes with subtlety but always efficiently. The lighting design by Barbara Samuels is brilliant. That's not a pun, but an assessment of her talent.
It is hard to know where most of the praise belongs for this engaging show but Director Will Davis must have made the ultimate choices. He knows how to make a bare stage stunning while getting the most out of his actors.
About those actors. At the beginning of the play, after God has spoken, the actors line up to remove a ball from a machine that is a miniature version of what could be used on a tv game show. Five actors line up, choose a ball that contains the name of the character he/she will play at that performance, and runs with it. According to the program, that could lead to 120 different combinations. At the performance I saw, the standouts were Ahmad Kamal as Love, the statuesque Kelli Simpkins as Stuff/Senses, Elan Zafir, a very gifted comic actor, as Friendship/Beauty and indomitable Washington favorite, Nancy Robinette, as Death. Avi Roque took on the role of Everybody with mixed results and, in the telling of dreams, lip synching.
Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is clearly on to something whether he is modernizing a really old play or, as in his earlier hit, An Octoroon which, according to Dramaturg Drew Lichtenberg's program notes "calls attention to historical depictions of race" and "flips . . .racial stereotypes on its head." Race is not a theme in Everybody. It's about what one does with one's life and the reckoning that comes as it is about to end. "Is this real or is this a dream," Everybody asks. "No," answers Love, "this is theater."
That Jacobs-Jenkins is well-versed in classics, writes well and has interesting things to say is not in dispute. He has checked all the boxes: Princeton, NYU, Juilliard, wrote for the New Yorker, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2016 and 2018, and he's a MacArthur Fellow. Not bad for a guy who is in his mid-30's. But all the accolades may mean that almost no one tells him that's too long, the point is belabored, please edit.
Everybody is supposed to run for 100 minutes. Last night it clocked in at two hours. That's too long, the point is belabored, so calls for an edit.
To read Elyse Sommer's 2017 review of the play in New York go here
Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by Will Davis
Cast: Yonatan Gebeyehu (Usher/God/Understanding); Nancy Robinette (Death); Alina Collins Maldonado, Avi Roque, Kelli Simpkins, Ayana Workman, Elan Zafir, Somebodies. Clare Carys O'Connell (Girl/Time); Ahmad Kamal (Love). Cast: Yonatan Gebeyehu (Usher/God/Understanding); Nancy Robinette (Death); Alina Collins Maldonado, Avi Roque, Kelli Simpkins, Ayana Workman, Elan Zafir, Somebodies. Clare Carys O'Connell (Girl/Time); Ahmad Kamal (Love). Scenic Design by Arnulfo Maldonado
Lighting Design by Barbara Samuels
Running Time: 2 hours, no intermission.
Shakespeare Theatre/Lansburgh, 450 7th Street, NW, Washington, DC. Performances October 15 to November 17, 2019.
Reviewed by Susan Davidson at October 21, 2019 performance.
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