The UW theatre department’s production of Brandon Jacob-Jenkins’ Everybody is a lesson in metaphysical philosophy and demands kindness and decency in a bitter world. By representing concepts and constructs, social alienation and depression are fought by reminding the audience that individual identity has no bearing on the unification of people by the same ideas — life, death, friendship, fear and dreams. Everybody is afraid of Death, solitude, and regretting their life, yet one must remember that despite it all, there is still love. Love is the force that can turn a nihilist worldview into an absurdist one; it can help us find meaning in a universe where there may be none.
Everybody is a modern adaptation of the 15th-century play Everyman, considered one of the first English language plays. Though its origins are unknown — the language suggests it was written and performed in the Middle Ages. Further genealogical research revealed that a Buddhist fable from an earlier period may have inspired it.
The play, directed at UW by Tanja Jacobs, dives into the age-old question of what happens as we die. Jacobs is an award-winning director and actress with 11 Dora nominations and three other awards. Based in Toronto, she received her MFA in stage direction at York University and directed Twelfth Night and Midsummer Night’s Dream for Shakespeare in High Park.
The ML Theatre was decorated with poker chips, ballots, bingo balls, and gambling iconography to represent life’s randomness. Each cast member contributed one component to the display. Actor Emma-Leigh Simonot used a video of poker with bingo wheels and balls on the floor to “illustrate […] the role of chance in our life and how we can interact with it. Chance is something we can passively observe or, it is something with which we can actively participate.”
The play begins with the usher — as any play would — but she later reveals her true identity as the character God. God feels betrayed by Everybody because Everybody neglected and abandoned her. However, Death emerges from the audience, and God tasks Death with finding Everybody and taking them on their final journey. Death finds five people, who beg for the opportunity to find someone to take with them on their journey to the grave, and Death agrees. He says he will only give them the amount of time it takes for him to change his clothes, and he departs.
At this point, God brings out a bingo wheel. The official cast and roles are assigned to the Somebodies each night by having them pick a ball from the wheel, which contains the role — this represents the randomness of life and Death and dismisses ideas about identities and appearance of the part and character. Every actor must be prepared to play any role, and have the entire script memorized. There are 720 possible variations of the show based on the randomness of casting. Connor McKechnie played the lead as Everybody, Colleen Macaulay played Stuff, Emma-Leigh Simonot played Kinship, Jamie Borremeo played Evil Deeds, Lilian Adom played Friendship, and Quinn Andres played Cousin. Each night, Ada-Marie Nita plays God, the Usher and Understanding, Matthew Wiebe plays Death, Zaniq King plays Love, and Nadia Khan plays Girl and Time, respectively. Nita says the audience will always see a show that has not been done before.
Everybody is dying, and they are terrified. Through long existentialist monologues, they reflect on their life with intense fear and anxiety, as they do not want to die alone. Finding someone to accompany them is a difficult task, and even the loyalties of Friendship, Kinship, and Cousin falter when asked. The play frequently explores ontological questions about the existence and purpose of people in the world, as the characters repeatedly ask, “What is real?” and “What is death?” On the brink of Death, all things in life seem absurd in comparison, and it uncovers our genuine fears, priorities, and feelings.
Against the onslaught of media, discourse, social and geopolitical conflict, and materialism, Everybody cannot live in the moment and experience contentment. Everybody slides towards nihilism and isolation to cope and rationalize with the world. Friendship, Kinship, and Cousin attempt to provide support as Everybody panics in the face of an irreversible journey. Everybody even turns to Stuff, believing their material possessions will suffice if they cannot find accompaniment with friends and family. Light and colour swell as the audience plunges into Everybody’s recollections of their life and dreams on their deathbed.
The blocking of the actors is precise and deliberate, as characters lap around the round stage, which acts as a clock. When Everybody progresses in their thinking and Understanding, they move clockwise; however, when Everybody regresses, they begin to step counter-clockwise. The audience is subtly reminded that time is passing, and with every minute, Everybody is pushed closer to Death. As an audience member, this felt incredibly clever. The attention to detail in the blocking and dialogue subtly contrasted with the play’s comments on the randomness of life; however, Everybody expressed their lack of control over their body and life, and there was a certain intentionality to this. Within the lack of control we, as humans, possess in the grand scheme of the universe, there are still some things we can control — our words and actions.
Characters most commonly introduce themselves from the audience, making vomitory entrances, a reminder that the concepts they represent are everywhere and in everything. Additionally, the play exhibits self-awareness as the fourth wall breaks several times, increasing immersion. It is not simply a work of fiction — it is a rich, theoretical commentary on society’s worldviews, and the theatre walls cannot constrain that.
The play possessed a light, witty sense of humour, which contrasted the deep dives into the inevitability of Death and our fears of the unknown. I laughed at its sparks of playfulness and colourful costumes and was moved to tears by the comments on the power and presence of Love. My feelings were summarized by the poet Kahlil Gibran in his poem On Love: “For even as Love crowns you so shall he crucify you / Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning. / Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun, / So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.”
Everybody is a play that implores its audience to consider the ways in which we live our lives, to be kinder to one another, and to make one’s life worth watching before it flashes during our final moments of consciousness. To quote Understanding, “Be nice to each other, and I’m talking about Everybody.”
Everybody will be performed from Nov. 22–26 at the Modern Languages Theatre. Tickets are $10 for students and can be purchased at https://www.uweverybody.ca/