by Barbara Waldinger
Bravo to the Chester Theatre Company for daring to present the highly imaginative and moving production of Duncan MacMillan and Jonny Donahoe’s Every Brilliant Thing! To accommodate this one-man, audience participation play, Chester’s Town Hall Theatre reconfigured its space for the first time in twenty-eight years from a proscenium to a theatre-in-the-round. Starring Chester veteran Joel Ripka and directed by Daniel Elihu Kramer, the company’s Producing Artistic Director, Every Brilliant Thing admirably serves this theatre’s dedication to thought-provoking, engaging work. The play premiered in the UK, produced by Paines Plough and Pentabus Theatre Company in 2013, transferred to the Barrow Street Theatre, and was adapted for television and broadcast on HBO.
It concerns the story of a boy suffering in the shadow of his mother’s multiple suicide attempts. He copes by developing and presenting to his mother an ever-growing list of things worth living for (“every brilliant thing”)—his hopeful effort to keep her alive. But we aren’t mere witnesses to his struggle. Upon entering the theatre, willing audience members are presented with cards bearing numbers and words. These are entries on the list, and when in the course of the play Ripka announces a number, the appropriate viewer, on cue, calls out the corresponding text, such as “ice cream,” “the color yellow,” “things with stripes,” “completing a task,” “bird song,” and longer titles like “staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch TV.” These are a few of the “favorite things” that Ripka’s character, from age seven through adulthood, summons to save his mother.
The set (designed by Travis George) offers seating on three sections of risers, while the stage serves as the fourth section. The mood of the play is enhanced by music (designed by Tom Shread) throughout because the boy, who inherited his father’s love of records (as well as the records themselves), spent hours listening while reading the liners or sleeves encasing them. It is said that MacMillan adapted the play from his short story “Sleeve Notes.” The lights (designed by Lara Dubin) remain on during the performance—audience members need to see one another clearly because they are a major part of the action.
For Ripka, from time to time, invites audience members to play opposite him in various scenes. Audience participation is a tricky thing. Some audience members love to be in the limelight while others shy away from embarrassment or fear. How to tell the difference? Before the show begins, as people are filing to their seats, Ripka, out of character, speaks to as many as possible to get a sense of which ones might be receptive to joining him onstage. It’s one thing to call out words corresponding to numbers, but another to portray, without a script, the major characters in the boy’s life—among whom are a vet who puts the boy’s sick dog to sleep, his empathetic school counselor, his beloved Dad, and the woman he would eventually marry. A friend who attended felt a sort of kinship with the amiable actor as soon as he was greeted by him; the feeling must have been mutual because Ripka subsequently asked him to embody his Dad.
Using few words, this caring, generous and perceptive actor manages to instruct the audience/performers by means of supportive encouragement and engaging warmth. In return they embrace their characters, role-playing with him in a dialogue that engages not only them but the whole audience. The performers trust him and he offers them a safe space—like a cocoon that protects them as they willingly plunge into his story. And there in front of our eyes, theatre transforms strangers into family.
We can’t help wondering how it is possible for an actor and his director to rehearse this play in a space containing only the two of them. What must the script look like? We were told that it’s filled with footnotes, describing what has transpired before different audiences. There is a basic story that anchors the performance but each night there are untold surprises. The actor must be present every moment, constantly balancing the structure he has been given with the improvisation he will be called on to create. He must steer his ship from form to openness and back again. Additionally, Ripka has to know the card numbers that he often seems to be calling at random and the text printed on each one! Thankfully, a helpful Assistant Stage Manager filled in at some of the rehearsals, playing different audience roles. But for Ripka, this is a bravura performance.
The story of a boy’s reaction to a mother so overwhelmed by depression that she is determined to end her life is a strange one for a play that employs techniques more often associated with circus clowns or stand-up comedians who involve the audience in their sketches. While humor does appear in this touching drama, for the most part we feel the pain of a boy struggling to come to grips with his mother’s disease and, not least of all, the ominous implications of its genetic component.
Every Brilliant Thing runs from August 2—13 at the Chester Theatre Company. For tickets call 413-354-7771 or online at chestertheatre.org.
Chester Theatre Company presents Every Brilliant Thing. Cast: Joel Ripka. Director: Daniel Elihu Kramer. Scenic Design: Travis George; Costume design: Charles Schoonmaker; Lighting Design: Lara Dubin; Sound Design: Tom Shread; Stage Manager: Adele Nadine Traub. Running Time: one hour 20 minutes, no intermission; at the Town Hall Theatre, 15 Middlefield Road, Chester MA, from August 2, closing August 13.