Strawberry Theatre Workshop’s ‘Everybody’: Death, Life and Strobe Lights

Morality meets mortality (a smoke machine and other special effects) in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ 2017 play
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Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Everybody opens very promisingly in its current production (through Feb. 16) by Strawberry Theatre Workshop. A long tour de force speech by Justin Huertas segues nimbly from a funny preshow turn-off-your-devices request to some interesting background about the show (an updating of a medieval morality play that in turn was adapted from a Buddhist legend) to Huertas' opening monologue in the role of God. Problem is, it’s the first of many similar tours de force. Many. Death (Mary Ewald) also has quite a bit to say before she gets down to the business of the evening.

Five actors now have their roles assigned live on stage by lot. One gets to play "Everybody"—at the performance I attended, this was Susanna Burney—and is tasked by Death with providing a precis of her life. The other four play the personifications whom Everybody tries to persuade to accompany her to the afterlife. Everybody’s encounters with them—Friendship (Annelih GH Hamilton), Kinship (a joint role this night performed by Lamar Legend and Megan Ahiers) materialism (here coyly dubbed Stuff, played by MJ Sieber), and one of the play’s non-lottery roles, Love (Adrian Kljucec)—provide more opportunities for extended monologues. Furthermore, there are lengthy prerecorded voiceovers lip-synched by the actors onstage. The script is extremely prolix, and the ratio of memorable content to word count is not high. The eventual effect, for the bulk of the show, is of a series of actors' memorization exercises; it’s like going to a piano recital and hearing scales—played very fast, very accurately, and, as a display of sheer finger skill, very impressively. But still, you know…scales. 

There’s a lot of meta-theatrical game-playing with viewer expectations, too—intricate and cleverly pulled off, and surely a great deal of fun for Jacobs-Jenkins and the cast, but which distances us even more from the core story and thus defeats the purpose of a morality play, which is to grab you and teach you a lesson. (Or is this just another audience expectation toyed with?) Redemption comes with the genuinely affecting finale, and the tide is turned in a daring and unexpected way: A strobe-light flashing, refreshingly ridiculous production number cuts in on the wordiness, like you’ve eaten kale for a week and suddenly get a cupcake covered in Skittles.

Even your physical and moral attributes—Beauty, the Senses, Courage—abandon you at the end, the playwright tells us (Beauty leaves first, of course). But Everybody does get to enter the afterlife with somebody: no spoilers, but it’s the character who at first seemed the cruelest, most demanding and most capricious. Jacobs-Jenkins gives us a lot to sit through before we reach some kind of satisfaction—but I suppose life can be like that too?

Through February 16. Dates and prices vary. 7:30 p.m. 12th Ave. Arts, Capitol Hill, 1620 12th Ave.; 206.325.5015; strawshop.org

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