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Theatre Reviews Review: Every Brilliant Thing is brilliant Christmas counterprogramming at Canadian Stage

Kristen Thomson stars, along with audience members, in Every Brilliant Thing.

canadian stage

  • Title: Every Brilliant Thing
  • Written by: Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe
  • Director: Brendan Healy
  • Actors: Kristen Thomson, you
  • Company: Canadian Stage
  • Venue: Berkeley Street Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to Dec. 16, 2018

rating

Every Brilliant Thing has introduced me to a new theatrical term: “Audience integration.”

I’ve seen it used in regards to the extreme form of audience participation that pervades this sweet 2013 show about suicidality, getting its Toronto premiere this holiday season at Canadian Stage.

Kristen Thomson stars – and you, and your fellow audience members, are the co-stars.

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Thomson plays an unnamed woman who tells us about a list she has kept since childhood of every brilliant thing in the world, in the British sense of the word “brilliant”: awesome or wonderful. Essentially, it’s a list of reasons to live and she began it, she tells us, after her mother’s first suicide attempt.

It’s audience members who actually speak the names of the brilliant things for the most part, having been handed cue cards before the show.

Thomson calls out numbers – and individual spectators respond.

1. Ice cream.

2. Water fights.

3. Staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch TV.

As Thomson’s character gets older, and her mother tries to take her life a second time, the brilliant things become more specific and complex.

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1,010. Reading something articulating exactly how you feel but lacked the words to express yourself.

The audience integration in Every Brilliant Thing takes other forms as well. When Thomson needs someone to play a vet, for instance, a spectator is plucked from the crowd to do so; another audience member’s coat becomes her childhood dog; and an audience-proffered pen is the needle with which her dog is euthanized.

Written by the English playwright Duncan Macmillan with the actor Jonny Donahoe, who initially performed in it, Every Brilliant Thing’s main character can be played by “a woman or man of any age or ethnicity,” according to the script.

That script has been adapted here to better suit a woman of Thomson’s age and background; dates and locations are changed.

Nevertheless, there are aspects of the show’s writing that put the lie to the idea of a universal character, beginning with that word “brilliant” in the title, which Canadians simply don’t use in the same way.

With its direct address and audience involvement, Every Brilliant Thing relies on us conflating actor and character in an unusual way that felt fresh at times, but manipulative at others. It’s hard to fully open your heart to a show about depression and suicide that also has a fundamental dishonesty in its construction at the centre.

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Nevertheless, Thomson, a well-loved Toronto actor and playwright, is charming as the narrator, very natural, wonderfully warm moving from the script to spontaneous interactions. She is a skilled improviser, after all; her two best-known plays, The Wedding Party and I, Claudia, were written through improvisation.

When the improvised bits wobbled, it was due to the structure rather than her on the night I was there. For instance, a man was summoned from the audience to play Thomson’s character’s father – and, though he was just given a single line to repeat, he milked it every time with exceptionally long pauses. He wasn’t doing anything wrong, but it clearly would have worked better with a volunteer who performed less.

Every Brilliant Thing works best when participants are asked to do things, or to react, rather than act. Though I did find it a little ungenerous to blind-side an audience member into reading the back cover of a book, especially The Sorrows of Young Werther. (It should be a crime to make an unsuspecting stranger try to pronounce “Goethe” in public.)

I had mixed feelings about Every Brilliant Thing as it unspooled in front of me. “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” I dashed down on my pad at one point when the list felt trite. But I was in tears on several other occasions.

Ultimately, I thought it was brilliant counterprogramming by former Canadian Stage artistic director Matthew Jocelyn.

While it’s a myth that suicides peak around Christmas each year, it is true that many people feel left out and lonely during the holidays.

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Director Brendan Healy, who has taken over as artistic director from Jocelyn, has staged the show in the round, making the audience seem like members of the main character’s support group. Indeed, Every Brilliant Thing relies on everyone working together and allowing themselves to be open and vulnerable. In that way, the show is itself an example of how to combat depression – reach out to one another, integrate into a community, and ignore the critics around you and in your head.

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