Everybody can be everybody, but only in the cast of ‘Everybody’

March 16, 2020, 10:49 p.m.

Rumor has it that — uncharacteristically for an on-campus theater production — the casting of “Everybody” was supposed to be kept secret. The idea seems to be that you are not supposed to learn who the actors are unless you are either in the cast or in the audience. The other draw of “Everybody” is the lottery, played out right on stage, that determines which role each actor will play in that performance. Coming into the show, I knew that five of the actors would not know who they would be playing until the performance began.

The show, put on by the department of theater and performance studies (TAPS), boasts an ambitious 120 permutations of the script, a number the ticket sales page proudly displayed. (Stanford theater, it seems, has an obsession with making actors experience the dice of choice this quarter.)

The production is committed to formally displaying the authentic randomness of life — the program booklet does not list any of the characters, and the actors’ bios are written without the conventional parentheses that would contain their roles. This allows for wonderful moments, such as when I saw my friend Vineet Gupta ’19, who I did not realize had been working on the show. He did not reveal to me his role even in a conversation we had right beforehand. He later introduced himself as the head usher of the production and transformed into God, accompanied by booming audio effects and LED lights on his costume that spelled out GOD. The five actors who participate in the lottery to become “Everybody” — Ali Rosenthal ’20, Obed de la Cruz ’21, Mai Lan Nguyen ’22, JJ Kapur ’22 and Danny Ritz ’23 in the performance I saw — are seated among the audience at the beginning of the show, and slowly reveal themselves one by one when Death calls on them from onstage. I even interacted with some of these actors before the start of the play, at which point they told me it was their “night off.” This commitment to form is crucial in establishing the possibility of Everybody (the character) being anybody from the audience — which then becomes the stakes in the show.

However, the novelty of the “actor emerging from the audience” idea quickly wears off. By the time the third person from the audience speaks to Death — who has been asked by God to choose somebody to make a presentation of their life, the device becomes cliched. This is emphasized by the fact that the actors are, very obviously, not members of the audience. They respond to Death with confidence and not the awkwardness of a real audience member being singled out by an actor. They project their voice clearly, marking themselves as people who are familiar with acting techniques. For a show that emphasizes so much the idea that everybody (in the audience) can become Everybody, the alienation that a real audience member would have from an actor-audience’s presentation of themselves disrupts this basis the show has tried so hard to establish. The authenticity of the play is called into question by the inherent performativity of the actors — and the spatial proximity between the actors and actual audience members backfires and only makes this contrast more painfully obvious.

Performativity — and the awareness of it on the audience’s part — continues to disrupt other aspects of the show that depend on the “calling out” of the audience’s ignorance. For example, the moment where Love announces that “This is a theater,” would have fallen flat without the dramatic collapse of the set and the lighting rigs. In a post-Brecht, postmodern consciousness of theatricality and performativity, the show and its discussion of metatheatricality become tiring and ineffective when not bolstered by visceral emotions evoked by impressive technical elements.

In fact, many of my favorite parts of the play consist of the impressive use of technical elements. A part of the show presents a danse macabre (the Dance of Death, an allegory often represented in visual and performing arts to demonstrate the universality of death), featuring many of the actors and members of the dance group Chocolate Heads. The corresponding part of the script merely instructs that it should take place in “a landscape of pure light and sound,” giving a lot of artistic freedom to the design team. And it is one of the best technical theater moments I have seen in an on-campus production: The entire stage is flooded with red light so saturated that green afterimages follow every move the dancers make. This also makes the white LED used in the next scene appear green to the eye — for me, a nod for the lasting effect of death on Everybody (pun intended). The green tomb in which Everybody goes in the following scene then refocuses the audience’s vision to a normal color balance. So when we see the remaining characters at the end of the play — Time, Death and Understanding — we see them in white neutral light, untouched — unlike Everybody — by the effect of corporeal Death. 

The set is stark white, with a rotating platform that is used to emphasize the languish of the characters, calling to mind how the motif of stagnated circular motion is often used as a characteristic of sins and their punishments. In the first part of the play, the platform also becomes a device through which the characters move spatially away from Everybody, while they deny the latter’s request for accompaniment in death. One of the most haunting moments of the play for me is the motif of a table with objects (a flower vase, a balloon, a teddy bear) rotating in the center of the platform, lit with a single spotlight. This is followed by a short blackout, and the table is replaced by one of the human characters, rotating at the same speed. This set design choice establishes a conceptual connection to a discussion about Buddhism earlier in the play, and, in my opinion, provides a preemptive redemption for a later scene that approaches the religion in well-worn “materialism-bad” terms.

While the play does present some nuanced takes on philosophical topics (for example, “God is real?” “That depends on your definition of ‘real.’”), it is heavily dependent on the hackneyed morality of “you will die alone.” One of the moments where the play escapes its moralizing structure is when Love, represented as both caring and demeaning, forces Everybody to strip and humiliate themselves in exchange for her accompaniment. While I have personal qualms with the close association between love and humiliation, this presents a controversial topic that is not merely a rephrase of a didactic idea. At times, the play’s moralizing feels as if it were part of the performance (there is something ironic about seeing Stanford students use superfluous words and abstract concepts to make their points), but this seems to be the ingenuity of the cast, rather than something inherent to the source materials. 

One of the most visually impactful scenes is the aforementioned danse macabre, and in fact, the internal contradiction within the dance almost manages to explain the contradiction between authenticity and performativity that has been raised earlier in the play. The dancers in white skeletal costumes of different historical periods themselves embody a contradiction between the transcendence and non-discrimination of death that they are supposed to be representing, and the corporeality and immediacy of the real-life bodies used to represent it. Whether the body politics is utilized on purpose or not, it is a hint of what the show could have been — an intentional exploration of the tension between performativity, transcendence and authenticity that is aware of current conversations surrounding these topics.

“Everybody” is a play about metatheatricality that underestimates its being situated in contemporary theater, and hence its audience’s awareness of this concept. The very fact that the actors do a lottery for their parts implies a separation between them and the audience, in the amount of time they have devoted to this show (or maybe I’m just too used to how theater on campus works), creating yet another division between its proposed merging of authenticity and performativity. I would have still recommended you see the show because its technical achievements are incredible and different from usual on-campus theater. But the content — itself an adaptation of a medieval moral play — needs another re-adjustment to the current consciousness of performativity and theatricality, in order to be as impactful as what the original play has been for its time.

Ryan Tan contributed to this review. 

Contact Khuyen Le at khuyenle ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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