“Every Brilliant Thing” reminds you of what makes life worth livingMarch 11, 2020
¦ A kitten sneezing for the first time
¦ A dog’s head resting on your thigh
¦ A phone call from an old friend
¦ A giggling baby
¦ Rubbing a dog’s tummy
¦ An unexpected joke
¦ A perfect sentence
¦ Dancing with those you love at a wedding
¦ Babies’ Buddha bellies
¦ A cup of tea on a rainy day
If I were making a list of things that make life worth living, those 10 things would surely find their way on it somewhere.
Good theater, and the one-man play “Every Brilliant Thing,” would also appear on that list.
In “Every Brilliant Thing,” the unnamed character begins a list of things that make life worth living. He’s all of 7 years old, and his mother has just tried to kill herself.
He thinks that if he makes a list of “every brilliant thing” in life, it will help her.
His list begins like this:
¦ Ice cream
¦ Water fights
¦ Staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch TV
It is, of course, a kid’s list, from a child’s perspective. (It also includes Batman, the color yellow, things with stripes and people falling over. Things adults, too, can enjoy.)
Michael Satow plays the narrator, portraying him up through adulthood.
A list can’t cure his mother’s depression.
But it surely helps him recognize the good in life, the things he’s grateful for, life’s small daily joys. And it reminds us of those things, too.
This play by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe is not your typical one-man show.
It’s a hybrid offering: part acting/part improv/part stand-up.
Mr. Satow performs it in the round, on a pile of overlapping patterned rugs. Up above hang scores of different kinds of lamps: stark modern, Tiffany glass, some in mason jars, some with fringed shades. It’s an interesting set by Tim Billman that provides comfort yet also reminds us that light (and hope) can come in various containers.
Mr. Satow is an amiable actor, friendly and relatable. He breaks the fourth wall, talking directly to theater-goers, and delivers the dialogue so naturally, it’s as if he’s making it up on the spot. It’s a compelling performance.
While he tells his story, he picks people from the audience to fill in as his family’s veterinarian, his father, his school counselor (and her sock puppet), his college professor, his first girlfriend.
People are coaxed and charmed out of their seats to take part. (If you don’t like audience participation, this show might make you nervous.)
Before the show begins, other audience members are handed a yellow card with one of the list’s “brilliant things.”
When Mr. Satow calls out the number during the show, that audience member reads aloud what’s printed on their card. Sometimes he reads list items himself: “315: The smell of old books,” “324: Nina Simone’s voice,” “575: Piglets.”
Somehow, Mr. Satow builds a community out of an audience of strangers. We see each other and we root for the people who are spontaneously chosen from the audience. We are drawn together by our laughter. And also by our tears. (Bring tissues. When Mr. Satow borrows an audience member’s sweater and, folding it into a soft bundle, cradles it as if it’s his beloved dog, Sherlock Bones, dying in his arms, I felt the first tears.)
Of course, audience ad libs add unexpected humor to the play. (The woman whose sweater was borrowed voiced concern whether he’d give it back.)
For Mr. Satow, performing this play must be like walking on a tightrope without a net.
He is talented, and that keeps him up in the air, but it’s also the audience’s goodwill and belief in him that helps him across without falling.
Which is pretty much the point this show is making about this crazy journey called life: We all need each other, each other’s support, care and encouragement.
As the Narrator grows older, through his teen years, college years and adulthood, his list of brilliant things grows and the types of things he enumerates change.
Some of the strongest, most powerful sections, for me, had to do with music: music the Narrator’s father would listen to, songs the family would sing when they gathered around the piano in their kitchen.
He talks about the way Ray Charles howls the word “you” in “Drown in My Own Tears” and about Curtis Mayfield’s incredible song “Move On Up.” (“Move On Up” would definitely appear on my list of “brilliant things” for its inspirational lyrics, its energy and its incredible percussion jam that turns the second half of the almost nine-minute-long song an exuberant instrumental celebration.)
Director Eleanor Holdridge keeps the show from getting too hokey and takes us on an emotional ride that has us both laughing and crying.
And, depending upon the audience and its responses, this play is different every time it’s performed.
But one thing is a sure anchor: “Every Brilliant Thing” is a moving show that reminds us of the importance of remembering the good things in life, and asking for help when we need it.
Life is full of confusion, ugliness and uncertainty. We’re facing a presidential election, a viral epidemic and economic confusion.
It would help to think on the things that are lovely and good and, yes, brilliant.
“Every Brilliant Thing” just might inspire you to make your own list of all the things that make life worth living. ¦
In the KNOW
“Every Brilliant Thing” When: Through March 29 Where: ArtStage Studio Theatre of Florida Repertory Theatre, downtown Fort Myers Cost: $55 Info: 239-332-4488 or www.FloridaRep.org