Buddhism tells us that we are like a bunch of flowers: When we die, we become the raw material to make new flowers. But the original is never coming back. What we, the audience, want to do with this little gem is what the Usher (a friendly, matter-of-fact Jeff Cooper) asks us to consider (along with silencing cellphones and finishing unwrapping the candy) as we enter the world of Everybody, now playing at Redwood Curtain Theatre.
Make no bones about it, this is a play about death — more specifically about how we as human beings, burdened with all the usual baggage of possessions, guilt, regret, relationships and other accoutrements of our messy lives, approach death. Everybody is a reimagining of Everyman, a 15th century morality play, turning the Catholic-with-a-capital-C guilt trip into a catholic-with-a-small-c riff on "you only have yourself to blame." Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins dispenses with the Christian specificities of the original in favor of less-easily pigeon-holed but equally challenging aspects of the 21st century.
Having introduced us to the concept of the play, the Usher hands us off to God, who has "ushered everything." In the performance I attended, God was played with gusto by veteran Redwood Curtain actor Peggy Metzger but the role will be filled by a revolving cast of guest actors over the course of the run. God, in turn, invites us to meet her assistant, Death (a powerful yet nicely self-deprecating performance by Brad Harrington), who will deliver a reckoning of the human race that has been both a blessing and a curse to the divine creator.
Death proceeds to select what appears to be a random quartet of individuals from the audience, one of whom is the eponymous Everybody. Just who Everybody is, however, changes with each performance of the play. In furtherance of the proposition that we are all in the same boat when it comes to approaching death, itself a random act, four of the actors (Tigger Custodio, Finn Ferguson, Todd Hoberecht and Emma Johnstone) draw balls from a bingo cage at each performance to determine who will play Everybody and various items of existential baggage on that occasion. It was a relatively easy feat for director Alexandra Blouin to pull off the supposed randomness for this production since all four actors are making their Redwood Curtain debuts. This is a less easy feat for the actors themselves, who each have to know all the lines for multiple parts. All four pulled off this challenge to great effect at the performance I attended, where Hoberecht played Everybody, though I can't speak for how other combinations will work — all four are also talented and versatile additions to the local theater pool.
Once who is playing whom has been sorted out, we can return to the story, in which Death informs Everybody that it is time for him to die, and he must prepare to make a presentation to God to justify his life. Stunned, Everybody at first tries to bribe Death; when that fails ("I am the incoming tide — I spare no lives"), he asks to bring a companion. The challenge then becomes convincing someone — anyone — to make that ultimate sacrifice.
Friendship seems like a good place to start but the world of social media proves too great a pull to leave for all time. What about family? Sadly, no — it turns out that human relationships are just an illusion, especially if there's no sex after death. If other humans are a bust, how about possessions? This sequence, in which the other three central actors take on the personas of "stuff," is the most engaging and fun part of the evening, taking the Marie Kondo mantra of keeping what brings you joy to a whole new level. But all Everybody's attempts to justify keeping physical possessions fail, so it's on to abstract concepts like Love (a delightfully self-deprecating George Inotowok), Understanding (Cooper again), Beauty (a preening, seductive Jennifer Trustem), Strength and, lastly, the Five Senses. At the final reckoning, all but one of these — plus a surprise newcomer who is the perfect counterpoint to that one remaining companion — abandons Everybody to his death.
While the play as a whole is satisfying and unpredictable enough to keep the audience engaged, there are a couple of areas in which the playwright's self-indulgent philosophizing and attempts to tie present-day sensibilities to the mores of the 15th century get the better of him. It will be interesting to see whether director Blouin, whose deft touch elsewhere brings out the best in her talented cast, reins in these tendencies over the course of the run.
Cecilia Beaton's spare scenic design, Grady More's restrained lighting, Kristin Heese's sound design, and Laura Rhinehart's quick-change costume designs all come together seamlessly to support the action, and Morgan McBroom handles properties and stage management with quiet efficiency.
Redwood Curtain Theatre's Everybody runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through March 10. Call 443-7688 or visit www.redwoodcurtain.com.
Humboldt State University's Gist Hall hosts Adoration of the Old Woman, a supernatural drama with political elements from March 1 through 10. Call 826-3928 or visit www.centerarts.humboldt.edu.
The oldies-heavy musical Smokey Joe's Café pipes up at Ferndale Repertory Theatre from March 14 through April 7. Call 786-5483 or visit www.ferndalerep.org.
Shakespeare gets weird with the magical comedy and drama of The Winter's Tale at North Coast Repertory Theatre from March 15 through April 14. Call 442-6278 or visit www.ncrt.net.