By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
On a seemingly unrelated topic (although it will eventually illuminate my main argument, I swear) all movies are manipulative. Sometimes you hear people slagging off Spielberg for the emotional pornography of his filmmaking, but that’s missing the forest for the trees. Spielberg’s painful to watch, not because he’s manipulative, but because he’s so hamfistedly obvious. Hitchcock, after all, is the epitome of cinematic calculation but it’s done with such enormous elegance it’s thrilling to see.
Similarly (and here’s my main argument … finally) theater is really nothing more than a stunt – taking something completely unreal and, for a few hours, making it seem real. To me, that’s a stunt. And, further, it’s the greatest, most artistically noble stunt there is.
So when I call the play Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, now receiving it’s Pittsburgh premiere from 12 Peers Theater, a stunt I want you to understand, that’s not necessarily a complaint.
Jacobs-Jenkins is the white-hot playwright of the moment having been shortlisted twice for a Pulitzer Prize (once for Everybody,) winner of a MacArthur Fellowship and nabbing an Obie for what is perhaps the most thrilling play I saw last year, the theatrically scalding An Octoroon.
Everybody is Jacob-Jenkins’ modern update of the classic Everyman. If you’ve ever had to take a “History of Theatre” class as a requirement, you know Everyman. It’s a 15th century Christian Morality play in which God calls home Everyman – the humanity stand-in. Death is to help Everyman down the path and allows the doomed soul an opportunity to bring along someone on the journey. To make a long story short (I can’t really say ***Spoiler Alert** since the play is 700 years old) Everyman discovers most of life is a lie and only good deeds and the love of God are gonna get you into heaven.
You have to take my word on this – it was the Hamilton of 1495.
To stage Everyman these days you’ll need to try every theatrical stunt in the book to make it playable. Jacob-Jenkins realizes this and seems to be saying: “If my Everybody is going to be a stunt, then let’s make those gimmicks radioactive!”
So in his version there’s a cast of nine actors. Four play the same character at each performance; at 12 Peers it’s Sara Ashley Fisher, Elizabeth Glyptis, Maddie Kocur and Jane Scutieri Tinker as Usher/God, Love, Little Girl and Death respectively. The other five actors are playing Everybody, Friendship, Kinship, Cousin and Stuff; Bre Brown, Jahir Christian, John Feightner, Paul Fields and Brittany Tague. But here’s the stunt, they don’t know who they’re playing until, at the top of the show, an onstage lottery assigns them their characters for the evening – so they have to learn all the lines for all those scenes.
On the evening I saw the show, Brown played Everybody – she did a thoroughly fine job as the other eight did as well. I suppose if I was really dedicated to the ancient art of theater criticism I would see every production to catch all possible combinations. (Of which there are 120.) But, ah, once is enough.
I have to say the stunt really doesn’t add much to what is, and resolutely remains, a historic, theatrical curio. Jacobs-Jenkins hedges his bets and gives the actors a bit of a “line memorization” breather; parts of the script — pre-recorded and played over speakers in the dark — are dialogues between Everybody and other cast members on the Nature of Things. (Apparently all the variations have been taped to accommodate the results of the nightly “character lottery.” So hats off to stage manager Caitlin Skaff and the run crew for keeping it all straight.) But these voice-overs seem as remote as the script but less visually interesting.
At no point is this 12 Peers production, directed by Vince Venture, anything less than solid. But the “meta” elements just serve to remind you that this is a fiercely theatrical experience which I think probably only holds interest for theater people. Debates about life, death, sin and redemption are best hashed out by drunken friends around a kitchen table late at night. Even all of Jacob-Jenkins stunts can’t freshen up a 15th century mothball.
Everybody continues through August 18. Richard E. Rauh Studio Theater, Cathedral of Learning. University of Pittsburgh, Oakland. www.12peers.org