Stage Left: Every Brilliant Thing breaks boundaries

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Can plays about suicide be fun and life-affirming? Well, sure. Just in time for Christmas, the Belfry Theatre has opened Every Brilliant Thing. Starring the effervescent and pleasantly goofy Dawn Petten, the one-woman show is about a seven-year-old who grows up, goes to college and gets married.

Sounds mundane, doesn’t it? There are, however, a number of remarkable things happening in this 75-minute comedy-drama. We learn the girl’s mother, while capable of joy, has suicidal tendencies and makes repeated attempts to kill herself.

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In an effort to cheer up Mom, the girl begins compiling a list of the minutiae that makes life worth living. Initially, the list includes ice cream, the colour yellow and being allowed to watch TV past one’s bedtime.

As the character (identified only as “Her”) gets older, the items on the list become more sophisticated. She rhapsodizes, for example, about how Ray Charles’ voice swoops up exhilaratingly for the word “you” in Drown in My Own Tears. Also noted: sex, falling in love and watching someone watch your favourite movie.

Ultimately, the list approaches the million-mark, which, depending on your point of view, is a splendid accomplishment or an astonishing exercise in obsessive compulsion.

Written by Duncan Macmillan and Johnny Donahoe (and adapted from Macmillan’s short story Sleeve Notes), Every Brilliant Thing was first mounted at Britain’s Ludlow Fringe Festival in 2013. The unusual staging reflects its fringey origins.

For the first time, the Belfry has presented a show in-the-round, with some of the audience casually sitting in a semi-circle at the back of the stage. There is no set — the main prop is a piano bench. The house lights remain brightly lit the whole time.

Faithful to the creators’ wishes, director Estelle Shook’s notion is that we, the audience, are part of the show. We see each other; we face one another. This point is underscored by another left-field twist. Before curtain, Petten prowls the lobby and distributes cue cards to patrons. Many of these are list items, with Petten later calling out numbers when it’s time for the cue cards to be read.

Some will find this utterly charming; I found it a bit stagey and self-conscious. Enlisting the audience in such a manner makes it impossible to forget we’re watching a performance.

Of course this meta-theatrical device is deliberate — the creators want to sidestep the traditional rules of theatre and knock down the fourth wall.

With this in mind, a DJ (actor Brian Linds) is in plain view at the side of the theatre operating a battery of sound equipment. Music features hugely in Every Brilliant Thing — there are affectionate references to the wonder of vinyl records and their liner notes. We hear a variety of offerings: Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis.

Throughout the play, Petten wanders restlessly through the crowd. She plops down in empty seats; halfway through, she high-fived the entire audience.

On Thursday night, Petten enlisted a middle-aged man to play the role of a veterinarian who puts her beloved dog, Charlie Barker, to sleep. Another audience member loaned her coat, which served as the dog.

Someone else lent a pen, which became a syringe.

Theatregoers are not actors. The delivery of some lines was muffled and indistinct. That said, on this evening, there were some particularly good contributions. Choreographer Jacques Lemay (attending the show as a civilian) impressed as Petten’s father, as did a woman who played a school counselor and another who provided a summary of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Every Brilliant Thing tackles a giant subject: What is it that makes life worth living? If (like me) you’re an unsentimental skeptic, the central device — The List — might seems a bit Hallmark-movie like.

Yet the preciousness of such a conceit is partly undercut by the suicide theme (we later learn the protagonist has inherited some of her mother’s propensity for unhappiness). On opening night, many were visibly moved by the play — there were red eyes and audible sniffles.

This is not an easy play to perform. Everything depends on one actor, who must not only deal with unpredictable audience contributions but deliver a complex script and memorize the numbers of all the cues — which are multitudinous.

The well-cast Petten carries it off awfully well. She’s a likable, funny performer who exudes warmth and generosity. Kudos also go to Linds, who successfully navigated a byzantine web of sound cues.

Hard-core theatre aficionados will find the unconventional staging rather intriguing. Every Brilliant Thing is an exercise in gleeful rule breaking — and for the most part, it works very well.

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