‘Everybody’ features talented cast trapped in purgatory of a dated play

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Every night in California Shakespeare Theater’s production of “Everybody,” a lottery takes place. A lottery-ball apparatus is wheeled onstage, in full view of the audience, and the main roles are randomly assigned to the cast. This means, as one member of the cast pointed out, that it’s obligatory for the principal cast members to memorize the entirety of the script.

This randomized casting process certainly adds progressive values to “Everybody.” The play’s participation in the lottery style of determining the main roles thereby positions open casting at the production’s center. This concept is mirrored in the play’s title. The adaptation from “Everyman,” the original 15th-century source material, into “Everybody” not only notes an effort to be more inclusive and offers the possibility of nonheterosexual couplings, but also invites gender fluidity into the casting. For instance, God in this universe is a Black woman (Britney Frazier) who frequently flits between the stage and the aisles running through the audience.

This is just one aspect to “Everybody,” as it ultimately tackles the scope of experience and the inevitable fact of mortality. Everybody is the main character, a person representative of, well, everyone. Most of the characters in “Everybody” are not human, but simply abstract concepts such as Friendship, Stuff or Love. One by one, these characters refuse Everybody’s plea to join her in a journey toward her own demise, with the play ultimately arguing that one is forced to leave most things behind as life progresses.

Despite these grandiose ambitions, the play begins with a deceptively simple opening scene.

An usher, dressed in relatively unassuming clothes, begins the show simply by reminding the audience to be respectful and to turn off their cell phones. Then without much of a transition, this usher is revealed to be a member of the company (Frazier) and immediately jumps into the character of God.

While Frazier offers an impressive performance as God, the opening dialogue itself feels pompous and clunky. God, at least in the opening scene, comes across as unlikable, with the character’s self-important lecture feeling like a bizarre way to begin a show about the importance of being a good person.

Compounding this problem was the choice in the staging of God. Frazier never moved from her static, Jesus-on-the-cross position. Frazier set her eyes skyward, her voice modulated and distorted into a godlike bellow, and then just stayed there. While these choices certainly deified her, they also drastically limited her ability to connect with the audience. Gone was the charming usher who garnered chuckles from the crowd and in her place stood an ill-tempered deity with a penchant for rambling prose.

Eventually, other characters took the stage in similarly surprising fashions. The cast emerged from the ranks of the surrounding audience, yet another deliberate move to emphasize the universal principles the play grounds itself in.

Everybody, as one might expect, was dealt the hardest role, but Stacy Ross performed beautifully, cycling effortlessly through moments of vulnerability and humor. Ross grew increasingly desperate as the play progressed, but the brilliance of her performance was undercut at times by the script itself, which included lines such as, “You mean God is real?”

Perhaps the curse of every play about morality is that the lesson learned at the end of the play seems too simple to really be impactful. Frazier returned again to remind the audience that perhaps we should take it upon ourselves to be better people and suggested vaguely that this play about death really teaches us about life.

What was needed wasn’t a contemporization of the play’s setting but more nuance and subtlety injected into the play’s main theme. The message of being left with nothing upon the point of death is truly haunting, yet the audience doesn’t get the opportunity for such macabre musings. Instead, the overarching parable is spoon-fed to the audience at the play’s close.

More than anything, the lottery-style manner of selecting major roles at the play’s beginning only indicated the strength of the actors themselves and less the strength of “Everybody.”

Contact Sarah Alford at [email protected].