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EMAV Review: "Every Brilliant Thing" is fundamental theatre ★★★★★

Updated: Mar 8, 2019

★★★★★ - Irresistible

The origins of drama have often been attributed to simple storytelling, as when the storyteller adopts a false voice or adds characterization through movement and costume. In such terms, the art of theatre could be described at its most fundamental as the presence of an actor before an audience.

Visceral proof of such “fundamental” theatre is on display through September 30th at the Art Square Theater. Actor Marcus Weiss and Director Jane C. Walsh have fused their inventive talents in a truly outstanding, 5 STAR, irresistible evening – bringing playwright Duncan MacMillan’s “Every Brilliant Thing” to life under the auspices of Cockroach Theatre Company.

As a bit of background, Eric Bentley (eminent British born drama critic, playwright, editor and translator), believes that there are three elements which are essential for a theatrical performance: an actor, a character (developed by the playwright in the script), and an audience.

This play depends on little else, though there are certain benefits to having a director along for the journey. Ms. Walsh stages “Every Brilliant Thing” with an eye for detail: as with the list of every (brilliant) thing, it’s the little things that matter in this show. It’s staged in a small space with the audience on all four sides; this approach takes an already emotional story and adds to its immediacy. She navigates the space, tempo, and script with grace and efficiency. Her design team successfully enriches the simplicity of the production without disturbing the intimacy throughout: Zac Phillips (sets), Elizabeth Kline (lighting), and John McClean (sound).

Before the show starts, audience members are given slips of paper with numbered items written on them, and at certain points they are asked to call them out: ice cream, staying up past your bedtime, laughing so hard you shoot milk out of your nose. So, as a mother battles chronic depression, her young son begins the list that makes life worth living, the list that is the grounding theme for the entire show. As time passes, the list grows and what began as a naive attempt to deal with tragedy becomes an epic chronicle of life’s small joys. Staged in-the-round, this touching, funny and intimate play charts the lengths to which we will go for those we love.

Plays with audience participation are often awkward. Not everyone wants to be part of a show, and it can feel like a breach of an unspoken contract between performers and audience members to rope people in and make them the focus of everybody in the room. “Every Brilliant Thing” pulls off the trick of participation by approaching audience members beforehand (so there are no surprises), and by incorporating Mr. Weiss’ sunny personality: instantly trustworthy, in control of the room and yet, when it’s called for, courageously vulnerable. He is a marvelous storyteller, and has terrific material to work with.

Weiss is thorough and caring when connecting to each and every member of the audience, narrating the story. He’s seven years old. Mum’s in hospital. Dad says she’s “done something stupid”. She finds it hard to be happy. So, he starts a list of everything that’s brilliant about the world -- everything worth living for. He leaves it on her pillow. He knows she’s read it because she’s corrected his spelling.

As the narrator gets older, attends university, falls in love and gets married, the list -- which eventually swells to nearly a million entries -- includes such offbeat things as “peeing in the sea and nobody knows,” “the smell of old books” and “Christopher Walken’s hair.” Meanwhile, the narrator discovers, much to his heartbreak, that the list and his best intentions are not enough to prevent tragedy.

Weiss is an accomplished, versatile actor whose impish charm, warmth and naturalism serve him well here. A former clown, he had never set foot in Las Vegas until he was cast in Blue Man Group at the Luxor in the winter of 2000. He has also performed with the world-renowned improvisational troupe, The Second City, fine tuning his flexibility and inventiveness that come in handy as he must interact with new audience members every evening. His improv skills take the show to a higher level, allowing him to take liberties with the text without making the show run aground.

As a play, "Every Brilliant Thing" doesn't candy-coat the subject of suicide and family survival. But it does shine gentle theatrical light on the way sweetness and sorrow are both magnified by tragedy. While this is, indeed, a solo performance piece, theatrical art demands the collaboration of actors with a director, with the various technical workers upon whom they depend for costumes, scenery, and lighting, with volunteers across many departments, and with the business people who finance, organize, advertise, and market the productions. Cockroach Theatre Company has, yet again, successfully summoned their artistic resolve and the community support necessary to embrace local artists and patrons for their 15th Anniversary Season.

Oscar Wilde would be proud: “I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”

First produced by Paines Plough and Pentabus Theatre Company, “Every Brilliant Thing” was originally only ever meant to be performed twice: at Ludlow Fringe Festival and Ledbury Poetry Festival. It didn’t exactly turn out that way. It captured people’s hearts at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe, played in New York for four months and has toured around the world. This utterly charming solo performance piece was also broadcast on HBO in December 2016.

Playwright Duncan MacMillan, who wrote the show with stand-up comic Jonny Donahoe, deliberately created a one-actor theater piece that could readily be adapted for a male or female performer and adjusted to fit any given time and place. The universality of the play’s themes — angst, family conflict, the fear of being an inadequate spouse or partner, time’s inevitable passage, and unavoidable loss — intersect seamlessly with its democratic approach. Should you ever find yourself phoning up an old teacher late at night to seek comfort from her sock puppet, you can take heart in knowing that even then, you’re not alone.

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