Jenny Nelson and Jomar Tagatacare, two of the five Somebodies whose roles are assigned nightly by lottery, in Everybody at Cal Shakes. Photo: Alessandra Mello

Despite a slow and inflated start, the West Coast premiere of Everybody at Cal Shakes — by award-winning playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (An Octoroon) — closes with a strong finish that resonates deeply and lingers in one’s thoughts.

Everybody is a 90-minute, one-act, contemporary adaptation of a 15th-century English allegorical morality play, The Somonyng of Everyman. In the original version, God laments that humans have become too absorbed with material wealth to follow God’s teachings. So God commands Death to go to Everyman and summon him to heaven to make his reckoning with God. When Death does this, a distressed Everyman begs for more time and, failing that, a companion to help him make his case to God. Everyman pleads with a group of allegorical personages for assistance: Fellowship, [Material] Goods, Kindred, Cousin, Knowledge, Beauty, Strength, Discretion and the Five Wits. But, the moral of the old morality tale is that we all journey alone to heaven or hell, the location determined only by the good deeds we accomplished on Earth.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Everybody, well directed by Nataki Garrett, follows the same general plot line as Everyman. Everybody cajoles the others for help, in turn, based either on their relationship (Kinship), the quality time they spent together (Friendship), or the special objects they shared (Stuff), with one important change from the original. It is Love (played by Avi Roque), not Good Deeds, who is prepared to accompany our hero to meet God (Britney Frazier) and Death (Victor Talmadge). In a nice touch, young Alexandra Van de Poel, as Time, is the chummy pal of Death.

There are some realistic and meaningful interchanges about what is significant in our lives and how we spend or waste our time and money, as well as some fine acting from the core players (Lance Gardner, Jenny Nelson, Sarita Ocón, Stacy Ross and Jomar Tagatac). These core actors choose their roles for each performance on stage by lottery. Stacy Ross excelled as Everybody at the July 22 matinee.

Unfortunately, Everybody is unnecessarily tarted up. In a way-too-lengthy introduction, Britney Frazier presented the plot’s concept with an artificially extemporaneous speech that also cautioned the audience against unwrapping candy and otherwise disturbing others. Since Cal Shakes encourages eating and drinking before and during the performance, this reprimand seemed a bit inappropriate. Then the core actors were selected from the audience, as though each was merely a random ticket holder, followed by a dream description and the selection of roles. So the heart of the play is a long time coming.

Also, there are voices piped in from various directions as the actors lip-sync some of the speeches. And poor Everybody has to run around the stage in her underwear. None of these theatrical embellishments is important, interesting or beneficial to the production. Nevertheless, the essence of Everybody does contain memorable concepts about what is important in life. And it is those thoughts about love, friendship and how best to spend one’s brief time on Earth that makes Everybody worthwhile.

Everybody is playing at California Shakespeare Theatre’s outdoor Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda through Aug. 5. Complimentary shuttles from Orinda BART begin two hours before curtain. Don’t forget your picnic baskets! Tickets: $20-$92. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Cal Shakes or telephone 510-548-9666.

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...