Friday, June 9, 2023

Every Brilliant Thing Delivers Hope & Joy

Who: Rook’s Theatre
What: Every Brilliant Thing
Length: Approximately 90 minutes (no intermission)
Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts Black Box Theatre (126 James Street South)
When: May 5 & 6 at 7pm; May 7 at 2pm
Tickets: $25-$30
To Buy Tickets: Available through Eventbrite or by calling 905-528-4020

Imagine being asked ‘what makes life worth living?’ For some, we might think about relationships with friends or family; maybe it’s a creative outlet. More recently, it may be a certain team’s playoff run. Every person will likely have a different response.

For the seven-year old protagonist of Every Brilliant Thing, the answer begins with “ice cream.”

The question arises as our child protagonist tries to understand their mother’s suicide attempts. In an effort to cheer her up, the child starts to create a list of everything that makes life worth living. And as the child grows, so does the list. Eventually, the child is an adult, questioning her own life and choices- and the list takes on a new meaning.

Performed at the Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts and produced by Rook’s Theatre, our one-woman show features Stephanie Hope Lawlor, who had initially prepared this show for 2020. As the pandemic, and subsequent need for mental-health supports came to the forefront, Lawlor continued to hold this work in her memory. It’s become a part of her, and it shows in much of the piece as she performs naturally and genuinely- as if it’s not a script that she’s reciting- but her own history.

There’s very little in terms of a set. There’s also minimal props and sound cues that are filled with jazz and blues music, making Lawlor’s performance both all the more impactful and earnest. It also places additional pressures on Lawlor to not only serve as the central performer, but also act as a pseudo-stage manager, and also facilitate audience interactions in addition to her own performance- no easy task.

For the most part, Lawlor pulls it off in spectacular form. There’s a nervous energy at the start, and it’s difficult to tell if she’s channeling a seven-year-old child, or if it’s genuine nerves. After her first few interactions with audience members- almost as if recognizing the premise of the show truly can work- she eventually settles in. Once she does, Lawlor manages to find a comfortable frankness, as well as an energy and momentum with the audience where you can’t help but cheer for her as she tries her best to reach (and surpass) her childhood goal. Lawlor’s enthusiastic interpretation and joyful efforts in improvisation with the audience only make this performance more enjoyable- you genuinely want her to succeed, both as a character in performance, and as a person.

It’s this part of the performance that is the most remarkable. While Every Brilliant Thing is billed as a one-person show, it’s really not. Night after night, Lawlor remains as the constant central character, but relies on ever-changing collaborators as she interacts with the audience in a multitude of ways to create a dynamic, supportive environment that is unlike any other theatrical production.

Much of this credit also goes to the direction of Luke Brown. He’s clearly encouraged Lawlor to make the most of the experience of her performance in the round- or rather, in the square- as the audience sits in one or two short rows around Lawlor to facilitate interaction. Brown skillfully finds humour and impact in silence and small pauses as much as the script. There are moments of seriousness where the direction could provide a greater impact, but Lawlor’s charm and earnestness to discuss mental health is encouraging- even the most reluctant of audience members can’t help but join in. Sound direction was also imperfect. While there’s no trouble in hearing Lawlor, her audience collaborators are not always used to projecting in the same way, making moments of the performance difficult to hear- especially from across the open room.

In writing this review, I couldn’t help but wonder if what makes Every Brilliant Thing unique- the audience participation- was actually it’s own challenge and flaw. Should suicide and mental health be handled and discussed in such a humorous and feel-good way? everwell Counselling will be onhand at the final performance for a “Community Care session.” But is that enough?

Or is it perhaps that the play’s interchangeable audience- who serves as a support system for the narrator- is a comment on the work of staying alive. Like Every Brilliant Thing, it’s not something that can be done on its own- and in both the case of this production and life, made a little easier when you have a list to work off of.

Editor’s Note: This review is based on a dress rehearsal.

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