In Everybody, a human soul encounters the Grim Reaper | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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In Everybody, a human soul encounters the Grim Reaper

A modern update of Everyman faces death with jokes and gimmicks that verge on cutesiness.

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Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has written about death before. His Gloria deals with the after-effects of an office shooting. His Appropriate focuses on the secrets of a newly deceased white southerner. But Jacobs-Jenkins's Everybody doesn't merely concern death. It concerns Death. An update on the 16th-century morality play Everyman, this finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize follows a human soul through her encounter with the honest-to-God Grim Reaper.

The soul in Everyman experiences the medieval equivalent of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross's five stages of grief, running through various emotions and tactics before arriving at understanding and submission. The essence of mortality having changed remarkably little over the last 500 years, so does the soul in Everybody. Confronted by the Angel of Death (who, as portrayed by Kenny the Bearded in Erin Shea Brady's staging for Brown Paper Box Company, presents as something more like the Hipster of Death), Everybody can't forestall oblivion itself but gains Death's promise that she can bring along anyone willing to accompany her. You can guess how well that goes as she puts the question to family and friends.

Where Everybody differs most significantly from Everyman is in attitude. The earlier play is as grim as the Reaper. Jacobs-Jenkins makes his version playful and idiomatic to the point of cutesiness. Gimmicks start even before the show, with ensemble members casting lots for who will play Everybody (I saw the excellent Alys Dickerson) as well as other characters in a given performance. There's a manically chummy narrator, audience plants, broad comedy, and daily-affirmation-style wisdom. While the result can be amusing at times, it's also overbearing, with notes of condescension. The starkest passage is the best: Everybody standing by her grave, getting deserted by Beauty, Strength, the Mind, and the Senses. That's death.   v

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