every BrilliaNt thiNG by Duncan ñ
Macmillan (Canadian Stage). At the Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley). Runs to December 16. $49-$79. 416-368-3110. See Continuing, page 33. Rating: NNNNN
Plays rarely exploit the fact that an audience is watching them, except to have an actor occasionally break the fourth wall. But Duncan Macmillan’s remarkable Every Brilliant Thing goes way beyond that. We in the audience play a key role in the telling of the story, and our presence enhances the work’s main themes.
Kristen Thomson plays an unnamed character who, it turns out, has a family history of mental illness. She was seven years old when her mother first attempted suicide, and 17 when her mom tried again. She would later deal with depression herself.
As a child, she concocted a list – referenced in the show’s title – of things that she loved. That catalogue, which included things like “ice cream” and “the colour yellow,” expanded over the years to include more mature and even abstract things and became, we can intuit, an ongoing affirmation of life.
Here’s the novelty: before the show begins, Thomson distributes numbered pieces of paper representing items from that list to random audience members to be read out loud during the show.
And once the play begins, she chooses people to stand in for various characters: the vet who gently put her childhood dog to sleep; her father explaining her mom’s first suicide attempt to her; a sympathetic teacher who used a sock puppet to communicate; her first boyfriend.
This isn’t nearly as twee as it sounds. By participating we forge a connection with Thomson’s character and we become a part of her world. We share and witness things that, dealt with alone, could be and often are devastating and overwhelming.
Brendan Healy’s production – his first directing of a Canadian Stage show since taking over the artistic reins – is richly atmospheric, Steve Lucas’s lighting and Richard Feren’s sound design singling out vivid moments in the inthe-round staging.
Thomson is an engaging and empathetic performer, carefully navigating every step of her character’s journey (at one point she turns TV talk show host and runs up and down aisles with a microphone) and grounded enough to make her improvised interactions with the audience – with us – feel genuine.
Much like Macmillan’s Lungs, presented here a few years ago, Every Brilliant Thing doesn’t offer up a traditional narrative. The “brilliant things,” besides telling us about the character’s life, say a lot about what it means to be human.
And if that’s not the essence of great theatre, I don’t know what is.
Kristen Thomson (right) steers this interactive show in fascinating directions.