Every Brilliant Thing, by Duncan Macmillan with JonnyDonahue. Directed by Daniel Elihu Kramer. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Joel Ripka (center) with audience members; photo: Elizabeth Solaka
". . .but - hopeful."
Several weejs ago I ran into Daniel Elihu Kramer, the Producing Artistic Director of Chester Theatre Company and in response to my casual "how are you?" received as answer, "I am trying to figure out how to direct our next play." At the time I thought it a peculiar answer, but after attending that show, "Every Brilliant Thing" I know exactly what he meant. It is a one-man show in which a man tells us about his entire life since the age of seven. Ordinarily that would be an easy thing to direct, but this time around there are difficulties.
Instead of one actor playing different people in telling his story, he is only one self interacting with real, instead of imaginary, altered voice and pose, people. From the audience he selects someone to play his father, his teacher, his guidance counselor, his girlfriend and so on. Many of the audience members become choristers, contribute clothing as props and so on. None of these people get a script, so their exchanges are animated by the imaginations of the people picked to have a role. And so the play becomes partially improvised. I don't know for sure, but it is likely that the playwright, Duncan Macmillan, has written out dozens of scenario possibilities so that the solo actor can be prepared to move forward with the plot no matter how the audience member reacts to the actor's words. That is one way to make this work.
Another way would be to have a plot outline and just totally improvise it at each performance, making up all of the lines as you go. I prefer to think that my first scenario is the more likely one.
To memorize and rehearse reactions to specific questions or concepts and remember each one of the many possibilities takes an amazing talent and the man on stage is defnitely a major talent. I have seen him before on this stage, although the new layout of the theater (it has gone from proscenium to in-the-round) allows him only limited time on the stage itself.
When I reviewed Joel Ripka in Phil Porter's "Blink" two seasons ago I was intrigued by his impersonal approach to his character. This time around I am taken by his immediate interaction with the strangers he selects at each performance to play his nearest and dearest. In 2012, in "The Swan" by Elizabeth Egloff he made more than palatable the animal/human rape of the leading lady. Here he deals with psychotic behavior, romance lost to reasonable reality, music as metaphor and the obsessive need to create the perfect list of every brilliant thing in the world. He has to improvise his way through the scripted plot to achieve these goals and as with his other two performances of man as oddity, he pulls it off brilliantly - he could add himself to his character's list.
In all three of these performances he has been directed by Daniel Elihu Kramer who seems to have no difficulty at all with odd characters, with unusual scenarios, with remarkable situations. The ease with which his characters grip their realities is wonderful to behold. In this play Kramer has directed Ripka exactly how he should direct his unsuspecting co-stars, occasionally supplying them with lines but most often letting them write their own responses. The only major character who does not appear on stage is the bi-polar mother whose actions precipitate the play's motivation, that list of things to covet.
Much credit for the cohesiveness of the play goes to the sound designer, Tom Shread, whose choices are excellent. This play would not produce the reactions it needs without his clever manipulation of sound and music. Lara Dubin's lighting is straightforward and provides a well lit theater: audience and performance space. The simplicity of this production is deceptive, of course. Set and costume are stagnant and become the places and indicate the times needed without any manipulation. There is a general cleverness about this production that moves it into a category all its own.
Know before you go: you may be assigned a chorus role; if so, accept it. You may be chosen to join Ripka on stage as an important character; if so, go with it. This show will never grow stale for each time the actor in the play performs this work it will likely take alternative turns. For an audience member that provides a funny, touching, enlightening experience. It is one I recommend with only slight apprehension; this is a form that feels like something young children would enjoy and for us, adults, it is possibly difficult for we lose that childish simplicity and acceptance and imagination that is often talked about with such longing. Of course, this could restore some of that to anyone willing to let go and take part.
Joel Ripka; photo: Elizabeth Solaka
Joel Ripka with audience member; photo: Elizabeth Solaka
Every Brilliant Thing plays at the Chester Theater located in the Chester Town Hall, 15 Middlefield Road, Chester, MA, through August 13. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-354-7770 or go on line at chestertheatre.org.