A 2018 Pulitzer Prize finalist for drama, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' Everybody is a modern retelling of the 15th-century morality play Everyman, an allegory where the titular character recounts his life before "God" and "Death."
In Jacobs-Jenkins' playful version, Everyman illuminates the inevitable human path toward death. Chicago audiences can see the Brown Paper Box Co. production of the one-act at Uptown's Buena Theatre, at Pride Arts Center.
From the start, Everybody veers from conventional theater.
"Five of the nine actors have their roles selected by a lottery that happens onstage at the beginning of the show," said director Erin Shea Brady. "Four of the nine are the same every night. And then the five, they call them the 'Somebodies,' are selected from the audience at the beginning of the show, brought up on stage by `Death,' and then randomly ( each ) given one of five tracks, one of which is 'Everybody,' who is the lead. They don't know who each other is to play… We immediately go into blackout. And then the play starts."
There are 120 possible variations of the play that an audience can see, in what appears to be an attempt by the playwright to simulate the randomness of life and death. "There aren't other plays that exist quite like this one," Brady continued. "So, it's been a unique challenge. We figure a lot of it out as we go."
The play is scripted and not improv, although an improve background can come in handy, Brady said.
"It's all scripted," she added. "You know, it's a big ask ( of the actors ). Anyone who has a pre-show ritual of going through the play before the show starts every night, anything like that really doesn't vibe. Because you're physically on stage in front of the audience every night when you learn who you'll be playing that night."
"I've obviously set a framework for each of these scenes. And we know the motion of the story that we're going in. But I can't direct 120 versions of the play. So, there's very much an element of surprise and spontaneity," Brady said. "I think what I was looking for in terms of casting was who has both understudy experience and improv experience," she said.
'Everybody' on the spectrum
Brady's diverse cast ranges in age from 12 through 60s, and spans a spectrum of genders and orientations. "The only thing ( the script ) specifies is that one of the roles is played by a child actor. Everything else is open. Between the five Somebodies, we've extended that to age, to gender, to sexuality, to race. So, we have five very different people coming into this room with very different life experiences," she said.
"The main character is Everybody. And then the remaining people play elements in their life. Nobody plays people in this play. Everyone plays ideas… So, it's been fun to see the range of possibility within these big conversations. You know, friendship looks really different for a lot of people. How many different ways can friendship look? How many different ways can family look?"
"There's a neutrality to it in terms of religion," Brady said. "It definitely runs on the more existential, philosophical, spiritual side. It really is just a play about joy, and vulnerability, and accountability, and how we move through our lives, and the things that matter most to us," Brady said.
Although this may sound like heavy subject matter, Brady said with a laugh, "It does fall on the comedic side a lot of the time," she said.
"I mean, it's a play about death," she concluded. "( That's ) not an easy thing to talk about."
Everybody runs from through Aug. 12 at The Buena at Pride Arts Center, 4147 N. Broadway. For more info, visit BrownPaperBox.org .