TAP brings ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ to stage

Mike Shaw, For USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Published 6:00 a.m. CT Sept. 2, 2017

 

There’s laughing at a sensitive subject (potentially cruel), and then there’s laughing despite it (potentially cathartic).

Actor Dan Klarer said audiences needn’t feel guilty busting out — and might not be able to help themselves at the right moments — during “Every Brilliant Thing,” the widely praised and fairly new-on-the-scene play coming Thursday for its Wisconsin premiere to Third Avenue Playhouse in downtown Sturgeon Bay for a nearly six-week run.

“I’ve never read a play where I laugh out loud and (then) tear up and go through every emotion the character does,” Klarer said. “The ending is so hopeful and sweet. We’ve rehearsed it with some test audiences, and it’s unbelievable how they are crying on the floor with laughter.”

The audience-interaction play follows a boy/man throughout life and repeated suicide attempts by his mother, starting when he was age 7. The “brilliant” things — meant in the sense of sparkling and awesome, not ingenious — are a list of reasons to live and enjoy life that the son gives his mom to try to cheer her up.

 The list grows longer and to near-countless lengths as the years pass. Its items also evolve from childlike and innocent (water fights, staying up late) to the carefree boundary-testing of young adulthood (whizzing in the sea) to weathered, world-wise observations that just help one make it to the next day with a smile.

The earnest hope that these little hints and tidbits can ward off tragedy is the narrator’s “coping mechanism,” Klarer said, much like humorous stories about the deceased at a funeral are no longer viewed as taboo but a tribute.

The author of “Every Brilliant Thing,” British playwright Duncan Macmillin, has said in interviews that his approach to the topic, though potentially controversial, is at least as practical, meaningful and therapeutic as the failed means of the past, including stigmatizing suicide victims as selfish or simply not speaking of them.

“It really deals with how we as a society deal with depression and the aftermath and how we can help that situation,” Klarer said. “In that respect, it’s important we have this conversation and that coping mechanism. At the end, the narrator is still coping. He’s used this list to help a lot of people, mainly himself and not just his mom.”

TAP is getting in on the ground floor with a contemporary show that has not been made or seen much in the United States yet, at least not on stage.

The four-year-old play became available for general theatrical performances only last year, when its rights were opened for purchase by Macmillin and the original producers. Until then, it was hit a in the United Kingdom starring British comedian/musician Jonny Donahoe.

The play then went on a worldwide tour, including landing on American shores in December 2014 with its U.S. premiere off-Broadway at Barrow Street Theatre. Three of the shows were filmed, concert-footage style, for an HBO documentary that aired last Christmastime — an ironic, but deliberate, choice, because the holiday season is when depression and suicide can spike among those not sharing the festive feeling.

 Klarer is wrapping up a busy summer after roles in three Peninsula Players productions. He’s had a two-time headlining hit at TAP with “The Santaland Diaries” but said the one-man-show element is about the only commonality between the two.

“Santaland” comically explored the true meaning of Christmas through the demeaning experiences of a 30-something, elf-for-hire at Macy’s department store.

“‘Santaland’ was more of a standup routine, a satirical retelling that is funny, too, but in a very different way,” Klarer said. “I get to really interact with the audience more (in the new role).”

Guests not familiar with the show should take note of that last comment. Selected theater goers help recite the titular list with note cards given them upon entering and are asked to help portray people in the lead character’s life.

Klarer will spend a half-hour before the show subtly searching for volunteers, so no one will be cajoled on stage during the show when the peer pressure’s high.

“(The scouting) will be as much for me as them; I get to see who I want to use, and I want them to feel as comfortable as possible,” Klarer said. “We’re downplaying that aspect of it, because we know it’s the kind of thing that can freak people out.

“I will just have to exude as much charm and easygoing attitude as possible, but that’s been my M.O. for quite some time.”

The 84-seat Studio Theatre at TAP was born for a a close-quarters show of this type. To make the experience even more intimate, 20 chairs will be on stage for the impromptu cast members to surround Klarer in an in-the-round presentation.

Klarer said the creators did not put down any restrictions making the narrator a male character, although he will play it that way. This frees it up for a wide variety of perspectives.

He said he recently ran into an actress friend from Kenya who had been a classmate in a postgraduate theater program at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. They discovered they were about to have the same role in common.

“The narrator has no name; it says in the script that it really should be ‘you’ telling the story,” Klarer said. “I get to be myself. For the sake of the reader, it should be any age, gender or race.”

Klarer hopes to see mental-illness support groups, high school student organizations, teachers, therapy professionals and the like take in the play.

“I feel like probably everyone knows somebody who has dealt with depression, however large or small. I know I have people in my life who have dealt with it in various degrees,” Klarer said.

“This play showcases how we perceive depression and not just how it affects (the sufferers), but the people dealing with those people,” he added. “That’s not a viewpoint you necessarily see in the media when you hear of a celebrity who suddenly commits suicide or is dealing with depression.”