Ro Boddie stars in "Every Brilliant Thing." Photo by Ken Jacques
Nine times out of ten, a theatrical production that leans heavily on audience participation is annoying. Non-actors cannot act. They’re even worse at improvisation. That being said, Cygnet Theatre’s Every Brilliant Thing is not annoying. It’s not brilliant, though Ro Boddie, the endearing and indefatigable star of the 90-minute solo show, comes damned close.
In this play adapted from a short story, “brilliant” does not mean blindingly intelligent. In British parlance, “brilliant” means wonderful, and Every Brilliant Thing was written by Englishman Duncan Macmillan along with Dublin-born comedian Jonny Donahoe. In the hands of Boddie and director Rob Lutfy, Every Brilliant Thing transcends its British roots. It’s a story for the world, effusively told, and bearing the message that life is worth living. For a million reasons.
That’s how many “brilliant things” Boddie’s unnamed master of ceremonies lists during the show, everything from “ice cream” to “hugs” to “laughing so hard something comes out your nose.” The impetus for the list is his character’s mother’s attempted suicides, which haunt him from childhood through his 20s and beyond.
The novelty of this production is audience recruitment and engagement. Pre-show, Boddie circulates in the Old Town Theatre lobby and chooses participants, who during Every Brilliant Thing are called upon for tasks as minor as shouting out something on the list when prompted, or as conspicuous as portraying, by speaking lines fed to them or spontaneously, people in the narrator’s life. The success of all this depends on each performance’s audience members. In any situation, Boddie is poignant and unflappable, and so tireless that at one point he even runs around the theater giving everyone in the crowd a high-five.
It seems like Every Brilliant Thing would work just as well with sound effects and screen projections, thereby avoiding potentially awkward “performances” by patrons, they who undoubtedly enjoy these bits more than do non-participatory theatergoers. Whatever its devices, however, Every Brilliant Thing honestly confronts the incomprehensibility of suicide while affirming the priceless value of living.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 9/5/18.)
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David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.