“Every Brilliant Thing” makes a brilliant case for choosing life

Mike Fischer, Special to the Journal Sentinel
Published 8:00 a.m. CT Sept. 12, 2017 | Updated 10:20 a.m. CT Sept. 12, 2017

Among the thousands of plays I’ve seen, I can’t ever recall attending one quite like Duncan Macmillan’s “Every Brilliant Thing,” a British import now receiving its first Wisconsin production, courtesy of Third Avenue Playhouse in Sturgeon Bay.

Dan Klarer is ostensibly the only actor in director Robert Boles’ cast, but don’t let the playbill fool you.  In this 80-minute, intermission-free piece, the lights never go down and therefore remain trained on the audience, placed on stage and in TAP’s traditional seating area to provide the semblance of an in-the-round format. 

While Klarer does the heavy lifting, several audience members help him, impersonating key people in the narrator’s life. 

Many more will read from numbered slips of paper they’ve been handed when entering the theater; each such slip contains one of the many “brilliant things” on an ever-lengthening list, through which the narrator desperately urges his suicidal, never-seen mother to stay alive.

The nature of those brilliant things changes as the narrator does, moving from a boy who was seven when his mother first tried to kill herself to a full-fledged adult.  The first item on the list is “ice cream.”  Later ones include “falling in love” and “sex.”

It’s neither as gimmicky nor as sentimental as it may sound.  And while you may generally hate audience participation – I sure do – here it’s not only necessary but also moving, in driving home that each of us is brilliant and none of us is alone.  Speaking the narrator’s list as he tells us about his life, we come to embody that list; each of our voices adds to the many reasons for living.

Klarer channels the considerable humor in Macmillan’s script, even as the narrator predicts he’ll never be fully joyful.  Macmillan doesn’t pretend that life is a picnic; the narrator insists that anyone reaching old age without having once felt “crushingly depressed” probably hasn’t been paying attention.   All the more impressive that this play makes a brilliant case for choosing life.  

Imagined Communities: Theater always aspires to foster an environment in which strangers can come together to form a community, joined by the dramatized stories that explain our lives to ourselves and help us better understand each other.  But I’ve rarely seen a show that so thoroughly practices what theater preaches.  Our active participation in creating “Every Brilliant Thing” embodies the principle that we’re all in this together, just as the narrator makes the case that none of us is ever as alone as we think we are. 

The narrator rightly tells us that suicide is contagious.  But so is art, which reminds us of how much we share, through the dreams in which we imagine that somewhere, there might indeed be a place for us – if we could but reach beyond our isolation and give voice to what we feel.  It’s no accident that one of the brilliant things included on the narrator’s list is “conversation.”  Nor is it any accident that TAP has made the welcome decision to include a talkback as part of every performance.  I can’t recall the last time I attended one for which so many audience members stayed or which felt so satisfying and relevant.    

Improvising: While most of us in the audience are simply charged with reading an item from a preformed list, five audience members will play characters in the narrator’s life; within the script’s tightly prescribed parameters, there’s room for a few of them to improvise. 

This show thereby provides a particularly dramatic confirmation of what’s always true in theater, dependent as it is on live human beings in real time: the show changes every night.  It bakes in one of the brilliant things on the narrator’s list: “Surprises.”  It acknowledges that because we can’t always know or control what will happen, every encounter with another includes risk. And it insists that those risks are nevertheless worth taking so that the show can go on, allowing us to remain together on the world’s stage rather than isolating ourselves and making early exits. 

Dan Klarer: It’s Klarer who must go where the audience improv takes him – and who must, before even getting there, cajole various audience members to play along with him.  I suspect Klarer’s already captivating performance will further strengthen as he grows more comfortable during the run with Macmillan’s material and unusual format.  What’s already apparent – and so important to this show – is Klarer’s warmth, charm and seemingly irrepressible good humor, each of which impressed me when I first saw him perform five years ago, as a joyful Berlin baker in the world premiere of “Victory Farm”.  There’s an underlying melancholy and sadness in his persona in “Every Brilliant Thing,” which in turn gives those more uplifting personality traits a deeper and more complex flavor. 

Klarer goes out of his way, here, to put audience members at ease, greeting each of them personally as they enter the theater and doing an excellent job of engaging with the audience throughout the show.  Every minute of his inclusive performance suggests that communicating can be as hard for the narrator as it is for us.  And he makes clear that this story doesn’t just belong to the narrator.  It belongs to all of us, struggling to dream a common language that might give us the courage to live.