As the baby boomers gray and the parents enter their final years, it might be the right time for the theater to take stock. Two plays at the Signature Theater in New York don’t deal with the usual mortal suspects — illness, accident, disease, or even fate — but with how we craft the art of dying. Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Wakey, Wakey by Will Eno are plays that teach lessons, asking audiences to celebrate life and contemplate its end in productions that tear down the fourth wall and invite us into the time that just precedes oblivion.
Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has previously experimented with approaches to genre and with the subject of racial identity. Neighbors drew on the tradition of minstrelsy. An Octoroon was a play-within-a-play based on a on a popular 19th-century melodrama that chronicles the tragedy of interracial love. In Everybody, he adapts Everyman, the late 15th-century allegory, a stark morality play that has been a staple in literature classes for generations of students. Briefly, the story is this: ‘Everyman,’ on being visited by Death, attempts to find solace in the form of Friendship, Kinship, Cousinship, and Materialism. Unable to secure a commitment from these figures to accompany him into oblivion, he calls on his attributes of Strength, Mind, Beauty, and the Five Senses. If all this sounds dated, trust me — this production is updated and bursts at the seams with innovative staging, salty language, and plenty of humor.
Everybody starts with a spirited and diverting Usher (Jocelyn Bioh) who instructs the audience to silence their cell phones. We begin to understand that this is actually an actor, who is comically attempting to explain the allegory and the show’s deeper Catholic elements, Buddhist beliefs, and resonances with a myriad of mythologies. Soon this ‘usher’ begins to shake, twist her neck, goes cross-eyed, and speaks as if possessed. She is now the voice of God. She is interrupted by the entrance of dodgy old woman (Marylouise Burke): “I’m Death,” she declares.
People from the audience, including the man sitting next to me, became fed and demanded to know what was going on. ‘Is this play’? ‘What are you trying to say to us’?
The shouters in the audience are the remaining members of the cast, who slowly come forward. The parts that each will play in the production are determined by lottery. (Each performer must know the entire script.) “God” spins the drum and the combinations of actor and role are vast. The actor who played ‘Everybody’ the night I saw the show was perfect: an old white actor with a long white beard (David Patrick Kelly). It could have gone in any direction. The other assigned roles were Lakisha Michelle May (a beautiful black actress) as Friendship/Strength, Brooke Bloom (a thin white actress) as Kinship/Mind, Michael Braun (uncertain ethnicity) as Cousinship/Beauty, and Louis Cancelmi (at least ½ Italian) as Stuff/Senses. As the play unfolds, your mind drifts to what other performer/role combinations might play like.
Before each allegorical concept is introduced, the theater plunges into darkness as a voice (of our enigmatic Usher?) explains the significance of what’s to come. The short speeches prepare the audience for the next morality lesson, but the upshot is far from didactic. The stage eventually erupts into a sort of Mexican Day of the Dead festival; large glowing skeletons prance around the stage and the audience. In that culture, death is celebrated and parodied as a part of the natural life cycle.
An old classic, Everyman, has been twisted, spun, and deconstructed into the mesmerizing Everybody. Through language, casting, and director Lila Neugebauer’s imaginative use of theater space, Jacobs-Jenkins new adaptation meditates, with a peculiarly modern wit, on friendship, meaning, and mortality.
Also at the Signature Theater is Will Eno’s 75-minute play Wakey, Wakey, which approaches the end of life in a more personal way. Actor Michael Emerson (Lost, Person of Interest) is Guy, a wheelchair-bound man reflecting on his final days. Except for a nurse, beautifully underplayed by January Levoy, this is a monologue performed as a chat that breaks the fourth wall. The show begins with Guy asking the audience members to “turn your damn phones off.” Emerson is earnest and conversational, occasionally pausing to take stock of his thoughts. He begins by asking the us questions that are contained on a stack of notecards: “Who was that one person who said something to you that really moved your life in a direction that is where it is now?” As he waits for us to think about our responses he discusses his own past.
Guy examines his ideas of time, fate and circumstance, serendipity, and co-incidence. Speaking to us as if we were old friends, we are invited measuring his thoughts and memories against our own. He pulls out more cards, asks questions of both himself and of the audience. He projects images and memories onto a screen, first bringing up a hysterical YouTube sequence of animals screeching. The audience laughs. He suggests: “There that was a good laugh. You’ll remember that. So now divide your life into two parts: before the screaming animals and after.” Guy interweaves regrets about his past with affirmations of the future, which in his case is to be cut short.
Clips of (fictionalized) home movies bring more about talk of memory and childhood. Though it may seem to be a mediation on death, Wakey, Wakey is really a celebration of life. As the title implies, the play is about waking up and taking stock of how the past forms the present and making the most of what we have at every moment of our lives. Without being maudlin, or resorting to clichés and affirmations, Guy involves us in his compelling contemplation of mortality. Emerson’s casual, beautifully paced performance, as well as Eno’s sharp writing, make for a hypnotic duo. The ending is a spectacle that leaves the audience with a huge collective grin.