Theater Review: “Every Brilliant Thing” @ Cleveland Play House by Roy Berko

Photos by Roger Mastroianni

Through Sun 12/22

If you saw An lliad at Cleveland Play House earlier this year, you are aware of the brilliance of actress Tarah Flanagan. She is a master at interacting with an audience and creating empathy and reality onstage. Fortunately for CLE audiences, artistic director Laura Kepley has found another vehicle to showcase the extraordinary talents of Ms. Flanagan.

Duncan MacMillan’s Every Brilliant Thing is a humorous, joyous, tender, emotional play about depression, suicide and living life, a solo piece with active audience participation.

Words like joyous and humorous usually don’t appear in the same sentence with depression and suicide, but in the hands of a fine playwright and a brilliant performer, they meld nicely. First produced by Paines Plough and Pentabus Theatre Company at Britain’s Ludlow Fringe Festival in 2013, the script later was later broadcast on HBO. The television performance was fine, but this hour-long show is best experienced live, where the audience can be upfront and participating in the experience.

CPH again illustrates why it moved from its previous home in the Hough area to Cleveland downtown. The show, which is being performed in the Helen Theatre, is the perfect intimate black box space for Every Brilliant Thing. On a proscenium stage the emotion of the piece would be lost, as it was on the television screen.

As they enter, many theater-goers are given slips of papers, or are whispered to by the stage manager or the performer. The slips hold numbers and words and phrases. The whispers share information that audience members will need to know when they are called on to engage in the production.

For the shy, don’t worry. You won’t be embarrassed or put on the spot to perform against your will. The entire concept, as developed by the writer, performer and director Kepley is relaxed and non-threatening. The communal sharing, as is the case in self-help suicide and depression support groups, allows an anonymous crowd to become theatrical comrades, an ad hoc ensemble united by a total stranger’s story, while learning the value of sharing grief and fears and working toward mental health awareness.

The numbered slips contain terms such as “ice cream,” “water fights,” “staying up past your bedtime,” and “being allowed to watch TV.” The terms are part of a list, born out of a child’s fantasy for rescuing her/his mother from her suicidal depression. They allow some of the participants to help the performer as his/her father, intimate friend, counselor, professor.

Her/his? Depending on which production you see, the role is played by either Flanagan (a female) or Alex Brightwell (a male). [Since I saw Flanagan, my comments will be about her performance.]

As the performer shares with us, “There are so many reasons to want to live, if only my mother’s clouded mind could be awakened to everyday delights.” How better to do this than to illustrate all the wonders of the world? Thus, the list.

To be effective in the roll of the child, later the adult, requires quick thinking, ad lib skills, a warmth and supportive caring nature. Flanagan has all of these qualities in spades. This is an amazing actress with natural charisma.

Kudos also to Maryann Morris, the stage manager and Nick Drashner, the sound designer.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Every Brilliant Thing is a brilliant, must-see production. Mental illness and its impact on a family, mortality and existential despondency are central themes. These are heavy subjects but ironically, the approach is almost frolicsome and totally mesmerizing.

Every Brilliant Thing, which runs 99 minutes without an intermission, can be seen in CPH’s Helen Theatre through Sun 12/22. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.

[Written by Roy Berko, member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle]

 

 

 

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