Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Play at Sturgeon Bay IS brilliant

‘Every Brilliant Thing'

STURGEON BAY, Wis. - Somewhere quickly a threshold is passed.

It may be early, when a boy holds his beloved, aged dog in his arms as a veterinarian brings the animal peace. It’s the boy’s first experience with death, and he’s not sure what death means.

This interplay is enacted by an actor holding a folded coat (as the dog) with a person from the audience as the vet.

Some instant in there the play becomes not a play but an experience with a greater purpose.

“Every Brilliant Thing” still is a play. It has an audience, in this case with a schedule of 28 more performances through Oct. 15. It is held in a professional theater, Studio Theatre of Third Avenue Playhouse. Performing is a professional actor, Dan Klarer, speaking scripted lines.

But how Klarer speaks the lines… and when… and with/opposite whom is a matter of spontaneity.

And to what purpose? To engage people in thoughts about what makes life great, what makes life worth living – versus the times when the soul goes as low as it can seemingly go.

The purpose of the play – the experience – is to tell the story of a person through stages in his life as he (could be a she, depending on the production) recalls his mother’s attempts at suicide. The first attempt the person becomes aware of is when he is six years old. The audience’s imagination is taken along on a car ride to the hospital with the boy’s father. An audience member portrays the father… who quickly transforms to being the boy repeating one line: “Why?”

In the story, the boy tries to understand his mother’s darkness. He tries to help her by writing down a list of what he thinks makes life worth living. The list starts with ice cream and moves on to scores, then hundreds and eventually thousands of things – every brilliant thing about living life, it seems. Thus the title.

Time passes, and the boy becomes a teen and now has a different take on his mercurial mother. Time passes, and the young man experiences books on the topic and a pedantic college professor. Time passes, and the young man experiences love… experiences marriage… experiences pitfalls of his experience with his mother.

All along, Klarer is interacting with the audience as a whole and with individuals. Often Klarer calls out a number – of a “brilliant thing” – and the audience member with that number on a slip of paper that Klarer has handed to them upon arrival shouts out the “brilliant thing.” Klarer also one-on-ones with an audience member for enactment of a sequence. On opening night Thursday, some audience “performers” really got into this and some less so. Participation is not a requirement; you can simply watch.

“Every Brilliant Thing” is a hybrid. It is improvisational scripted theater, somewhat. It has a story, and effect in telling it changes from performance to performance because the players – individual audience members – change in the “roles” from performance to performance.

Klarer really has to think on his feet, act and react, bring a cause and effect, know when to use a certain line or head a scene in the intended direction. Thursday, Klarer backed up the scene with the veterinarian; the audience “actor” needed to step away from her automatic urge to giggle so as to make the scene tender. By controlling the situation, Klarer made the scene – boy holds pal as pal is put to sleep – a grabber. And then Klarer had the audience (or at least me) in his clutches the rest of the way as this buoyant being telling things he needed to get out.

That’s another thing about “Every Brilliant Thing.” It is one of those pieces of theater that serve as a catharsis. It lets the cat out of the bag, so to speak, expresses thoughts and feelings that in times past people held in and suffered/wondered/agonized about. Suicide is a big enough thing that most people can relate to it because of brushes or direct hits with it through family and friends. “Every Brilliant Thing” is a release valve… or at least an instigator of reflection or perspective.

This summer, Klarer acted in three productions at Peninsula Players Theatre – scripted roles in set pieces. Now he is at Third Avenue Playhouse, where he has performed in assorted pieces, including the one-man “Santaland Diaries.” For “Every Brilliant Thing,” he was tapped by director Robert Boles, who molds theater productions like sculptors shape expressive works of art.

In Thursday’s audience talkback, Klarer and Boles talked about how they prepared for this production; in rehearsals, Klarer worked off/with small audiences to get the feel for the real deal, being that the audience interplay is essential to “Every Brilliant Thing.” Twenty or so members are seated on the stage, and some of those will have speaking “roles.” The rest of the audience is seated in standard seats. Klarer is in continual motion as he interacts with individuals on stage and throughout the rest of the theater. This is practiced ad-libbed scripted spur-of-the-moment seat-of-the-pants performance that only a few performers can do – which is why Boles picked Klarer to do it, because Boles knew Klarer could pull it off.

“Every Brilliant Thing” is a very good thing in a lot of ways.

At minimum, it is a unique theater experience.


Creative: Creators – Duncan MacMillan with Jonny Donahoe; director – Robert Boles; production stage manager and sound design – Logan Thomas; lighting design – James Valcq; costume design – Kelsey Wang

Cast: Dan Klarer, assorted volunteer audience members

Running time: Generally 90 minutes, but there is a talkback of another 15-20 minutes

Remaining performances: To Oct. 15 – 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays

Info: thirdavenueplayhouse.com


THE VENUE: The 84-seat Studio Theatre is located in Third Avenue Playhouse in downtown Sturgeon Bay. The space is tucked into the corner off the main theater of the playhouse. Entry is along a long hallway off the playhouse’s lobby. Studio Theatre is a black-box theater; the walls and support beams are black. The focus becomes the stage, which is rectangular and has no curtain. With the closeness of the audience to the stage, the aura is the audience is part of what is transpiring in the play. The playhouse is in its 14th year as a live performance venue. It previously was a movie theater, the Donna.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My new books, “Three Miles Past Lost and in the Pickers” and “Nickolaus and Olive – a naïve opera (in words),” are available online and in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum, Bosse’s and The Reader’s Loft.

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