|Adrianne Krstansky in "Every Brilliant Thing"|
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)
Local actress Adrianne Krstansky, as the Narrator and sole performer in the play Every Brilliant Thing, now being presented by SpeakEasy Stage, has a little list, enumerating the things in life that make it worth living, as a means of communicating with her suicidally-inclined mother. It's a list that started as a defense mechanism in the eighth year of her character's life and grew, from simple material things to the more complex. Members of the audience are employed to insert occasional (mostly pre-written) contributions that not only break the theatrical fourth wall but embrace it, while essentially demolishing it. As such, it offers, for better or for worse, an unusual degree of spontaneity and improvisation, which makes it clear that no performance of the work is the same as any other. This level of reality theater could be disastrous in many an actor's hands, but this is not just any actor, but in point of fact (wait for it) a truly brilliant thing herself.
The play first saw light at a 2013 British fringe festival, written by Duncan MacMillan and stand-up comic Jonny Donahoe (who also performed it), eventually finding its way to these shores in 2014, off-Broadway. The fact that it is playable by any gender on the spectrum of life ably demonstrates its universality; on the other hand, it also betrays the fact that we don't have much opportunity to get to know this character. The company's Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault admits in the program notes that he's not a huge fan of one-person shows and thus has rarely presented them. One of the reasons he chose to do so in this instance has to have been the further choice to select as Director another renowned actor, Marianna Bassham. It's an enlightening window into what might be identified by the Narrator as the source of many moments of life's mysteries, joys and wonders. Imagination, she discovers, is fundamentally what makes life worth living.
That all this is accomplished on a bare fully-lit (Lighting Design by Eric Levenson) “in the round” (well, square) stage with no set and few props to speak of, with the protagonist simply attired in gray and black with a Twin Peaks shirt (Costume Design by Amanda Ostrow Mason), is all the more astonishing; so is the abundance of wry humor. A few episodes are heart-breaking, bittersweet and funny all at the same time, as when the family pet, to be put to sleep, is revealed to have been named “Sherlock Bones”; it's a moment when her seven year old psyche learns the lesson that a loved one can become an object and thus may be taken away forever. There could have been more allusions to such loss or to her parents' reactions to her list (her mother never verbally acknowledging it, her father merely correcting her spelling), or of the briefly mentioned allusion to the “Werther effect”, from a Goethe novel, meaning a change or “copy cat” act brought about by interaction with a powerful artifact of pop culture, such as the suicide of a prominent figure like Marilyn Monroe or Robin Williams.
That both Actor and Director succeed so well in their respective roles is a testament to their previous growth in theater, as well as their research into how parental depression leads to what the playwright defines as a cloud of silence (Sound Design by Lee Schuna) hovering over a family when they are coping with mental illness. They succeed in conveying the sadness, the guilt and the shame felt by those who love them, while at the same time amassing a list of brilliant things that would indeed be missed.
There is a ironic lyric from the theme song of the television series Mash: “suicide is painless”. Not.