Every Brilliant Thing
Riverside Theatre — opens Saturday, Nov. 26 at 7:30 p.m.
The holidays often bring a cloud of gloom with them. As the world around us begins to bundle up in layer upon layer of clothes, hang sparkling lights on homes, bake cookies and pies, it can all seem a futile attempt to combat that wet chill that gets into your bones, into your soul. The knowledge that winter will be long can sometimes be devastating.
Duncan MacMillan’s Every Brilliant Thing, astutely directed by Sean Lewis and performed by the talented Tim Budd, is a story about attempting to understand that kind of gloom. The narrator is seven the first time his mother attempts suicide. His response is to create a list of all the things that make him happy. “1. Ice cream. 2. Water fights. 3. Staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch TV …” Does not life offer so many wonderful things?
As he grows up, he continues the list, on and off. He goes to school. She tries again. The list falls to his subconscious. He falls in love. The list is rekindled. Things look up. Then they don’t. He begins to realize the gloom in his mother isn’t something he can save her from, not with thousands of brilliant things, and that it has affected him in ways he hasn’t realized, or wanted to realize.
This sounds pretty heavy, doesn’t it? Oddly, it’s not. It’s a celebration of life amidst its failings — because as you’re watching this lovely story unfolding, you start to agree with the silly but absolutely true things he puts on his list, and then you begin your own: 1. Free orange juice. 2. Seeing a play for only the price of the babysitter. 3. A hug from mom after months of separation.
And there is audience participation, folks. If you’re like me, that is the kiss of death to any notion of going to show and actually enjoying it. What if I’m singled out? What if I say or do the wrong thing? I am not a fearless person. I like it when the action is happening under the lights and I am a safe voyeur in the dark. But this participation was — different.
There is no dark in the theatre. All the lights are on, house and otherwise, and there are even seats ripped from the raked audience and placed on the stage. We can all see each other the whole time. I had some fleeting moments of “what if I pick my nose unconsciously?” but they soon disappeared as I became wrapped up in the story being told. Because we changed throughout the experience together. We were strangers at the top, but as things continued, we began to get to know each other. We laughed at the same parts. I started to look around and see myself in the other people in the room. We became a community. And when the narrator came up to me, it was just a conversation. It was just a story, told very well.
Now for a bit of critique. Budd, one of the best performers our neck of the woods has to offer, is wonderful. The strategy involved in keeping a one-man show alive, while running with whatever the audience participation hands him, is nothing to sneer at. He has contingency plans, he knows how to rework bits so they make more sense. At the very beginning you could see him “acting” a touch. But it disappeared within the first few minutes, and he became just a person telling his story — being honest and simple, giving it all to the audience, creating a safe place for us to receive it.
There are some momentary staging issues as well. Sight lines can become difficult when he’s sitting in the house, depending on where you may be in the audience. But Budd is a dynamic moving target, and any obscuring is fleeting. And you don’t always have to see him anyhow — you can hear his commitment no matter where you are in the space. You get to know him in that short span of time.
At a few points, you can see a phrase he says affect him, an audience interaction take him somewhere emotional he hadn’t prepared for. I wish he would settle into those moments just a bit more. He spends so much time being vulnerable, and those truly naked flashes are so special, so unique to life at that specific moment. They are a gift to the audience.
Go and experience Every Brilliant Thing. Great theatre doesn’t need bells and whistles to affect an audience. It just needs to be real, earnest, generous and a touch challenging. And, I know most of you are like me when it comes to the prospect of audience participation, but take a chance. Be open and trust the shape of the story, and the storyteller (he will take care of you, I promise!).
Theatre will never be perfect. It’s the nature of the art. It’s messy. It’s evolving constantly. It doesn’t want to be perfect. Sometimes, though, it’s brilliant.
Every Brilliant Thing opens tomorrow, Nov. 26, and runs through Dec. 11. Tickets are $12–30. Take advantage of the theatre’s Black Friday special, today, Friday, Nov. 25, only, for $12 tickets for all seats to this Saturday and Sunday’s shows: