By Jean Lowerison | Theater Review
Depression and suicide are not commonly thought of as opportunities for comedy. But British playwright Duncan Macmillan’s immersive, 70-minute, one-man show “Every Brilliant Thing” — playing at Cygnet Theatre through Sept. 16 — aims to find reasons to laugh despite these situations.
But watch out: If you enter the theater early, you may be conscripted to play a part, perhaps even to sit on the stage for this blend of comedy, improv and audience participation. (Macmillan wrote the interactive play with British comedian Jonny Donahoe in mind as the performer.)
The Cygnet version stars local favorite Ro Boddie, an actor of enormous talent and an extremely engaging style. The playwright doesn’t give him a name but calls him “Narrator.”
“The list began after her first attempt,” he tells the audience, referencing his mother’s first suicide attempt when he was 7 years old. He thought that if he compiled a list of all the wonderful things in the world to live for (“every brilliant thing”), it might keep her from trying again. (In British English, “brilliant” means “very good.”)
Number one? Ice cream.
The show takes the Narrator from the world of a young kid and his dad through the Narrator’s high school and college experiences, and eventually to a marriage with its own problems — all haunted by the looming specter of another possible maternal suicide attempt.
The making (and reading) of the list — which will eventually have a million entries — comprises much of the show. The Narrator distributes pieces of paper with one brilliant thing each to selected audience members, who will read when their number is called. A few audience members will be called upon to interact with the Narrator.
Your mileage will vary with differences in audience participation. One major takeaway is that Cygnet needs to use microphones, at least for the folks who do more than read a list item. And the director needs to tell the folks given a piece of paper with one “brilliant thing” to speak up when they read aloud.
One of the most successful interactions on opening night was the Narrator’s meeting, courting and eventual marriage to fellow college student Sam, a volunteer picked by Boddie who is seated on the stage. This Sam was excellent, both likable and credible, and a character who made us believe the relationship, beginning to end.
Another highlight was Mrs. Patterson, the high school counselor who tries to help our distraught Narrator navigate his life with the help of an improvised sock puppet.
The poignance of the notion that a list of “brilliant things” might save a depressed person’s life almost overshadows the amusement of some of the items on the list.
Still, Boddie is an engaging presence, and though the show sometimes seems like an extended public service announcement, Boddie at least makes it watchable.
Here’s the major philosophical takeaway to discuss over coffee, courtesy of the Narrator: If you get to the end of your life without getting crushingly depressed, you probably haven’t been paying attention.
—Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at email@example.com.