Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Every Brilliant Thing
Jungle Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule


Joy Dolo
Photo by Lauren B. Photography
Most of us have gone through at least one dark episode in our lives that challenged us to mull over what makes our arduous journey from womb to tomb worthwhile. Some of us are lucky enough to only experience these pangs of doubt fleetingly, while for others among us those pangs are daily visitors. Duncan MacMillan's play Every Brilliant Thing shares with us the heroic efforts of an unnamed narrator who, at age seven, begins a list of things about life that are wonderful—in Brit speak, "brilliant"—as a balm for her depressive mother who has just attempted suicide.

Over the course of an hour in the theater and a couple of decades in the life of our narrator, she adds to the list, aiming first for one hundred entries, then two hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, and onward, sometimes picking it up after a period of hiatus. Many of the entries are provided by audience members who shout out words or phrases written on scraps of paper which the narrator passes out as they take their seats, along with a few words of friendly chatter to disarm those who may resist participatory theatrics. In telling the tale, she makes stops in her teenage years—another of mother's suicide attempts—then on to college, young adulthood, falling in love, and beyond. The entries progress from the fancies of a seven year old, such as ice cream and water fights, to more grown-up pleasures and sophisticated tastes. At every level, the items on the list are relatable. Some make us laugh while others warm our hearts. A few may cause discomfort as they reveal a guilty pleasure.

The narrator also recruits audience members to play the other characters in Every Brilliant Thing. These include a veterinarian who accompanies the narrator's first encounter with death, a school counselor who uses a sock pocket to communicate with the distressed child, a haughty college lecturer, the narrator's cold father who offers the child little comfort—stating "Your mother's done something stupid" on the way to the hospital after a suicide attempt—and the narrator's one true love, bonding first over books and then over the list. The play is crafted to make it remarkably easy for these unsuspecting recruits to take on their assigned roles, most effectively when the narrator tells an audience member "You be me, and I will be my father. All you have do to is keep asking 'Why?'".

Though the narrator's mother reaps little benefit from her child's list, it becomes clear that the real beneficiary is the narrator, who uses the ever growing list to ward off fears that she has inherited her mother's depressive nature. Of course, such fears are exacerbated by her mother's ongoing struggles with mental health, her father's remoteness, and a society that makes is very difficult for anyone to admit to being overwhelmed by their own emotions. She increasingly becomes driven by a mission to cite the evidence and build a case in favor of life.

Playwright MacMillan developed the play with Jonny Donahoe, the comedian and actor who played the narrator throughout its initial productions—first in 2013 at the Ludlow Festival, then 2014 at the Edinburgh Fringe, and a successful 2014-2015 Off-Broadway run that was filmed by HBO. While Donahoe is male, the playwright specifies that the narrator can be either male or female, and actors of both genders have played the role.

The performance I attended featured Joy Dolo as the narrator and, to hijack the play's terminology, she is "brilliant." Greeting audience members as if expected guests in her home, Dolo creates a sense that we are on the same plane, not audience and actor, but friends gathered to tell the narrator's story. The list becomes a shared work, to which we can all subscribe. Dolo performs on Thursday evenings throughout the Jungle's run.

At the Jungle's other performances, a male actor, JuCoby Johnson, takes up the role, so the narrator at those performances is male. Although Donahoe, who first created the part, is a white actor, both Johnson and Dolo are African American. Neither gender nor race should be construed to make any difference in the play's themes, for its message moves almost stealthily into some fiber of the universal experience that transcends those divisions.

Music has a major role in Every Brilliant Thing. The narrator's father uses music as a form of self-medication, retreating into his study and his record albums. As a child, the narrator determines gauges her father's state of mind by the type of music on the turntable—ranging from the smooth soul of Nina Simone, which means Dad is accessible, to discordant jazz described as "instruments falling down the stairs," which means keep away from father. Quite a few entries on the list relate to music, either as specific songs, musical genres, or such idiosyncratic items as the proffered fact that the seventh track on any great record album is "brilliant." Sound designer Montana Johnson has done a wonderful job of providing music the instant it is called for, along with other sound cues, which become a surrogate stage set.

As for the actual set, the Jungle reconfigured its space from a proscenium stage to an almost bare runway designed by Mina Kinukawa with tiered aisles of seats on either side. This overhaul, initially devised for the Jungle's production of Redwood, delayed by the pandemic and now scheduled for later this season, works perfectly for Every Brilliant Thing to keep the entire audience within a few rows of the narrator. Director Meredith McDonough puts the space to great use, keeping the narrator turning from one side to the other, charging up and down stage, stepping off the stage to audience level, and going into the aisles. The effect draws us ever more closely to both the story and the distress the narrator lays at our feet, as if we are seated not in a theater but in her living room.

Every Brilliant Thing is just one hour long, but it delivers the emotional clout and audience engagement of a full-length piece, and doubtless extends itself outside of the theater into the thoughts and conversations of all who, as audience, shared in creating this experience with the narrator. It is a unique play, brimming with compassion and humanity, urging us to take stock of all that is brilliant in our own lives.

Every Brilliant Thing runs through November 14, 2021, at the Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $45.00 - $55.00. Seniors (60+) and students with ID, $5.00 discount. Special Friday night discounts: patrons under age 30 and residents of zip code 55408, $25.00; high school and college students (with valid ID), $20.00. Rush tickets: unsold seats, if available, two hours before performance, $20.00 - $30.00. For tickets call 612- 822-7073 or go to www.jungletheater.com.

Playwrights: Duncan MacMillan with Jonny Donahoe; Director: Meredith McDonough; Set and Costume Design: Mina Kinukawa; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Sound Designer: Montana Johnson; Assistant Sound Designer: Mikayla Finnegan; Sound Consultant: Sean Healey; Stage Manager and Properties: John Novak; Technical Director: John Lutz; Production Manager: Matthew Earley.

Cast: JuCoby Johnson; Joy Dolo (Thursday performances)


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