Cal Shakes’ ‘Everybody’ ponders life and death

Taking an urgent, here-and-now approach, California Shakespeare Theater’s West Coast premiere of playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Everybody” is a forceful, energetic do-over of a 15th-century morality play about life and death.

Based on “The Summoning of Everyman,” a play whose origins are variously attributed to an ancient Buddhist fable or an adapted Dutch play, the topic at the heart of the 90-minute, no-intermission production is an experience shared by everybody. A life story, regardless of race, gender, class, good or bad genes, results in death, an ending whose expectedness means it cannot be, but is, a spoiler.

With a smart, aspirational set design by Nina Ball, a script trimmed of puffery, powerful dramatic and cleverly comedic direction by Nataki Garrett and the keen casting of some of the roles by lottery, “Everybody” is full of riches.

Standing in front of Ball’s towering, accordion-fold spires painted to replicate and extend the golden hillsides, dense green chaparral and sky blue of the actual outdoor Bruns Amphitheater setting in Orinda, God (all-confident Britney Frazier) chastises the audience.

People have failed to make the world, as God intended, “a dwelling place of magnificence.” Death (a tender, vulnerable Victor Talmadge) arrives. Literally roaming through the audience, he finds the “Somebodies” — five embedded actors who panic not so much at being called by death as by the prospect of dying alone.

Begging to be allowed a companion, Death grants their wish and assigns with a spin of colored balls in a bingo cage machine each Somebody a role as Everybody, Friendship, Kinship, Strength, among others.

At the first matinee on July 22, the selected-by-lottery Everybody (admirable, fearless Stacy Ross) turns first to Friendship (delightful Sarita Ocón), for a buddy. Abandoned by her BFF, she next appeals to two Kinship characters who decline; a cousin (Lance Gardner) even asks for advice when it comes to the time he too is called by Death.

Eventually pleading with Stuff (marvelous Vanna White-spoof by Jenny Nelson), Everybody is told, “I said no.” Even hugs and begging on her knees receive a “Get off of me” and Stuff’s rapid departure.

The crisis precipitates the arrival of Love (a fervent Avi Roque), whose agreement to accompany Everybody into the grave is conditional. The terms require that Everybody bare not only flesh, but render a secular-style confession that includes careening around the stage while shouting: “I don’t love changing, I don’t love that I have no control. I surrender. This body is just meat.”

In one of the production’s rare, weak gestures, a lively oversized skeleton puppet dance is visually stimulating but stalls the plot’s forward momentum. Followed by thin explorations of Everybody’s appeals to Beauty, Senses, Mind and “all the s—y stuff you’ve done in your life” that join at the last minute, more time devoted to the latter and excising the former would arguably make a more striking presentation.

Even so, the echo after leaving the theater is undeniable.

No one determines if God is real — we’re encouraged to decide that on our own — but all people know they are Everybody.

“All flee-eth save love,” God intones, suggesting acts of kindness during life to reduce Death’s sting. Or perhaps another trip to see Everybody die at Cal Shakes will be soothing?

After all, the lottery will spin out one of up to 120 variations and another unique show — a testimony to Cal Shake’s contemporary take on a 15th century play and live theater’s evolutionary, life-affirming capacity.


Presented by California Shakespeare Theater
: Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays; closes Aug. 5
Tickets: $20 to $92
Contact: (510) 548-9666,

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